“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” —James Baldwin
Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, a group of Commonwealth students and alumni/ae—Mosammat Faria Afreen ’16, Iman Ali ’18, Gueinah Carlie Blaise ’16, Tristan Edwards ’18, Kimberly Hoang ’21, Alexis Domonique Mitchell ’16, Ryan Phan ’22, Alan Plotz ’21, and Tarang Saluja ’18—mobilized to share their views that the school, which prides itself on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), has fallen short in its efforts to address racism and socioeconomic inequities.
One result of the tireless effort and sacrifices from these students to bring these issues to light: the inception of InCommon, a team comprising board members and current faculty and staff members that focuses on DEI work at the school. Read more about the work that InCommon has been doing.
Here, we hope to provide space for the petitioners to tell their stories.
A fixture in Commonwealth’s sports community, Ryan Phan ’22 brings an athlete’s focus to everything he does, whether it’s mentoring students in Dive In Commonwealth, working on his fitness goals with Athletics Director Darren Benedick, or coordinating with the WeDiscuss student group. He applied that same drive to advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Commonwealth, helping write and share the petition and organize events over the summer of 2020.
Phan came to Commonwealth energized by his middle school experience, where he felt both challenged and seen by his teachers, and he was looking for more of the same. So he applied to Commonwealth and anxiously awaited the admissions decision—though, being relatively unfamiliar with the private school experience, he found himself as worried about fitting in as getting in.
“I expected to feel out of place at this school because of my humble origins,” he says. “I was glad to have the opportunity to come to Commonwealth but felt a pressure to succeed because of that very position.”
Once he started classes, those worries faded, though they never fully disappeared. “I’ve met many wonderful friends along the way but deep down,” he says, “I still feel there are only a few people who fully understand me.”
Phan has taken on the mantle of making sure other Commonwealth students feel seen and understood, first by joining the school’s student-led Diversity Committee and then by helping reimagine the group for the 2020–2021 school year as it became WeDiscuss.
“A name like ‘Diversity Committee’ suggests that people from underrepresented backgrounds are the target audience, but with a new focus on community building [in WeDiscuss], we hope more people will want to come to listen and contribute,” Phan says. The group has developed weekly discussion prompts and visited City of Boston classes to talk about their experiences. But Phan notes that the group’s success depends largely on community engagement.
Phan found community in his fellow petitioners too. “We writers devoted many hours over the course of the summer talking about our experiences, challenges, and hopes for the future. I felt truly connected to the other writers and am glad to have their support and friendship now,” he says. He recalls the many Zoom calls and late-night conversations, and giving up time with his family and friends to focus on the work, particularly when the petitioners hosted a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) affinity group and allyship space in July.
As one of the three current students involved in the petition, Phan has unique insights into its impact at school. Though it’s too early to comment on any long-term change, he thinks it has made some difference. “I firmly believe that the student body and faculty are more aware of the issues that continue to affect the lives of people in and out of our community,” he says.
Particularly mindful of how stress affects the body—and all the more so during an exceptionally stressful year—Phan hopes to inspire more people, and not just students, to be invested in their health and wellness. “It’s incredibly important that we take care of ourselves as we spend many hours sitting behind a screen,” he says. “With so many things happening in this world, I feel empowered during a workout because I’m the one with all the control.”
Phan envisions a future in physiotherapy, architecture, or education or perhaps a role that combines his interests. “My mission with any of these career paths is to continue to find ways to help people to empower themselves,” he says.
Just as he urges other members of the community to attend to their physical health (“Progress takes time, habits take time to develop, and it’s important to take care of yourself!” he says), he encourages them to read the petition. “We writers created it with the intention of guiding Commonwealth on the right path to social justice in a changing climate,” he says.
“Part of what attracted me to Commonwealth was the freedom to learn what I wanted to,” he says. Now he’s putting those lessons to use.