Talk Circles on Race: Facilitating the Discussion of Racial Issues at Stuyvesant

Stuyvesant’s race talks seek to facilitate discussion on racial issues and create a safe space for people to express their opinions.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In an effort to affect the conversation about racial issues as Stuyvesant, members of the Black Students League (BSL) and ASPIRA have begun hosting monthly Talk Circles on race. The meetings are held after school and give students a chance to engage in respectful conversations about racial issues.

In the past year, several events have heightened racial tensions at Stuyvesant, increasing the importance of discussions of race. A video from 2016 of two white girls in blackface, one who now attends Stuyvesant, resurfaced last January. When one Black student posted about the incident, they were approached by a Big Sib, who asked the student to take the post down and leave it to the administration. Then, in March, the admission of only seven Black students to Stuyvesant out of a possible 895 spots led to calls for diversity within New York’s specialized high schools.

There were also more subtle racial incidents throughout like the n-word, things like anti-seminitism, cases of [anti-]LGBTQ [and] derogatory comments,” Substance Abuse Prevention Intervention Specialist and SPARK Counselor Angel Colon said. “A lot of it was online postings.”

Out of the three talks held so far, the first was run by the counseling department and the next two were student-run with members of BSL and ASPIRA guiding the conversation. “Usually, we have only one or two people leading the talks. We have an outline that students—me, [senior] Andrew [Smsaryan], [junior] Avishek [Mojumdar], as well as some other BSL members or SPARK leaders—will draft up,” junior and BSL/ASPIRA Vice President Sarai Pridgen said. “We try and start with questions or topics that we pose to the group, and then we have people convene by talking to one or two people around them in smaller groups before we share out loud.”

Students call on each other to express their ideas and share a role in facilitating the discussion. The meetings are not intended to change students’ perspectives on various topics; instead, they are a safe environment for students to voice their opinions. “[The meetings] allow for other people to understand where you are coming from and give feedback as well,” said Mojumdar, who facilitated two meetings.

The first meeting was an introduction to racial issues in general and served as a pilot talk. “A lot of the agenda revolved around defining and understanding race, race relations, biases, implicit bias, and it was a forum of free will and free thinking,” Colon said.

After the success of the first talk, the second talk went more into detail about race and reviewed current events around race. “The goal is to bring to light a lot of the more difficult conversations that aren’t being held in classrooms,” Pridgen said.

The meetings also allow students to address topics that they may feel uncomfortable talking about during their day-to-day lives. “Part of this is all about activism and for student voices to be heard here in the community—I think for many years, people were either afraid or silent because when it comes to discussions about race, it is uncomfortable for people,” Colon said. “It is uncomfortable to challenge or confront other people, the slurs, the incidents, or individuals whose mindsets are in that negative realm, [as well as] what their beliefs are.”

While meetings are primarily focused on Latinx and African American racial issues, the talks’ organizers seek to include many perspectives. “It’s not productive if we only have Black and Hispanic minorities having discussions on race without the perspective of Asians or Whites,” Smsaryan said.

Though the first meeting struggled to attract members, the discussions have recently ballooned in attendees. “We went from seven to 10 people at our first meeting, most of whom were members of BSL and ASPIRA, to filling up the room with 30 people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds,” Smsaryan said.

This is in part due to an increase in promotion efforts. “The race talks have gotten more exposure through prior attendees, e-mailing, and other forms of invitation of publication. That is why I feel we were able to have such a growth in the meetings,” Mojumdar said.

The greater attendance and diversity at race talks have been influenced by the founders’ efforts to discuss a wide array of topics. “[For the third talk,] we invited the Patriots Club, and it was co-hosted along with junior Rudolph Merlin, who is in charge of the Patriots Club. First, we talked about immigration and what it means to be anti-immigration and why specific attitudes are problematic and hurt[ing] communities. Then, we delved into free speech,” Pridgen said.

During the talk, students also discussed a controversy from October 2018, when students tore down Patriots Club posters reading “Build the wall, change our mind.” “We had a variety of students talk about how even though they understand we weren’t trying to incite any particular type of violence, [what happened] could marginalize people of Hispanic communities,” Merlin said. “From that, I sort of took a different approach. Our goal as the Patriots Club is to facilitate discussion, and we have to be the ones [who] do that. We have to have a more open environment.”

Still, members of Stuyvesant’s clubs committed to diversity have expressed that there is more work to be done. “I think that it would be so helpful if we had students from Spec coming—if we had students from SU, [...] Big Sibs, ARISTA, and other major organizations participating in these conversations. We’re a school that’s majority POC. There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t have students from all different backgrounds—not just ASPIRA/BSL—attending these talks,” Pridgen said.

Asked about her hopes for the talks in the future, Pridgen remained positive. “When we have the opportunity to engage in thoughtful discussion or even in arguments with our peers, that’s really where we see progress and productive conversation,” she said.