Breaking Cycles of Conflict: Diversity Day 2022

Advocates struggling to reconcile their varying perspectives on neurodiversity. STEM program coordinators encountering pushback when recruiting students from underrepresented groups. Members of different generations facing friction while trying to relate their experiences. Conflicts like these are inevitable in any kind of work towards equity.

During Commonwealth's most recent Diversity Day—an annual time of discussion on belonging and inclusion—our community reflected on how conflict manifests both in and outside our building. We often hear of open challenges to inclusion in the world through racially biased policy, for example, or reductive assumptions around gender. But what happens when you clash with someone who shares your values—and if that person is a friend or family member?

Students drew on their personal experiences and interests to answer those questions with nuance and perception. That began with the discussions led by this year's keynote speaker Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, a strategist and consultant who addressed how to stop cycles of conflict. All disagreements, Dr. Goldman-Wetzler said, are rooted in differing perceptions of the "optimal outcome," whereas ideal outcomes should take both reality and others' needs into account. 

Dr. Goldman-Wetzler recommended two practices for moving those on all sides of a disagreement from conflict to collaboration. Mapping out the dynamics of a conflict—the contexts and circumstances influencing each of its participants—can reveal common beliefs that would otherwise go unnoticed. Additionally, making an unexpected choice, or opting for a pattern-breaking path, disrupts behaviors that impede progress. By using these strategies, she says, "you will discover how to free yourself from situations that now seem impossible to solve."

Following Dr. Goldman-Wetzler's keynote, a slate of student- and faculty-led discussion sessions represented the full diversity of identities and interests in Commonwealth's community: from "The Beauty of Islam & Arab Culture" to "The First Amendment," "Your Roots & Commonwealth" to "Jewish American & the American Jew." Appropriately, several touched on how to find answers in the face of the sort of seemingly unresolvable conflicts studied by our keynote speaker. 

Dava '24, leading the session "Invisible Disability: Neurodivergence & Its Intersections," outlined competing perceptions of neurodiversity—a spectrum of identity encompassing people with diagnoses like ADHD and autism that affect the brain. Activists, medical professionals, and individuals within the community itself regularly disagree on whether neurodivergence is a health condition requiring a cure; a shared marker of identity; or somewhere in between. These ongoing dialogues can have significant implications on not only how neurodiverse people view themselves but on what they see as priorities for action with others in their community. 

A few rooms down the hall, Halle ’24 and English teacher Mara Dale, leading "Social Poetics: Parsing the We/They, Us/Them of Our Nation," began by asking their participants to write a new national anthem—in eight minutes. "Students' thoughts regarding the exercise moved quickly from the playful ('At least make it singable!') to more serious concerns that arose as they thought about the realities of the United States and the purpose and possibilities of a national anthem," Ms. Dale remembers. The questions lingered as they examined an Arethra Franklin performance of "America the Beautiful," Amiri Baraka's spoken-word poem "Why is We Americans," and poet Toi Derricotte's "Black Boys Play the Classics": "For whom does an anthem speak? Is there any such thing as a unified 'we'? Must an anthem acknowledge or celebrate history? Need it reflect current realities? Should it be prospective? Celebratory or critical, or both?"

Session leaders had much to draw on from their experiences in education, too, like Mellanie ’25 and math teacher Meena Boppana, who took a critical look at the concept of "pipelines" connecting women to opportunities in STEM. It can be easier, they argued in "The STEM Gap," for organizations to pin attrition rates in such programs on women's individual choices, rather than needed institutional changes. And in "Optimal Outcomes," led by English teacher Rikita Tyson and physics teacher Rob Sherry, students discussed boundaries in the use of language and the misunderstandings that can arise when words are misused. When is it acceptable—and by whom—to reclaim terms considered derogatory? In what circumstances are words themselves an act of violent provocation? 

Related: Ms. Boppana Reflects on Gender Disparities in Math

The solutions to these conflicts can't be found within a single day of dialogue, but Diversity Day provides a nexus of conversations that continue all year long. The structure of each community-led session allowed participants, as this year's keynote encouraged, to break out of their pre-existing patterns of thought and consider new perspectives. When conflicts arise, as they do in any community, students will be ready with strategies for talking through all the layers of a situation and seeking an optimal outcome of belonging. 

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