The Power of Stories: The 2017 New England Youth Identity Summit
The 2017 New England Youth Identity Summit
After an eloquent introduction on a snowy April morning by long-serving Waynflete English teacher Lorry Stillman, Richard Blanco, the 2012 presidential inaugural poet, mused to a packed Franklin Theater, “They say that every poet is in some way writing the same poem all their life. There is some central obsession to which that body of work always refers back. For me that obsession comes down to one word: home.” For the next hour, Mr. Blanco told stories and read poems that spoke to his lifelong search to understand the many dimensions of his identity and to integrate them into a profound sense of home.
A great school, like a great poet, might also be said to be animated by a central obsession, to which all of its work tends to refer back. For Waynflete, that obsession is manifest in our ongoing effort to create a dynamic learning community by inviting diverse and motivated young people and adults to share their life stories, to be in dialogue, and to learn from one another.
The recent gathering for the second annual New England Youth Identity Summit (NEYIS) was the latest iteration of that central obsession. The Summit attracted over 300 young people, their teachers, and their parents from across Maine and New England for an evening of powerful performances, a full day of mostly student-led workshops, and Richard Blanco’s inspiring reading, all focused on a central theme: the power of stories. The Summit was co-sponsored by Waynflete and Maine Seeds of Peace, an organization dedicated to promoting understanding and justice through dialogue.
The Power of Stories
Franklin Theater was filled to capacity on Friday evening as the audience settled in to enjoy an eclectic range of performances, each of which tapped the power of the expressive arts to create a shared emotional experience and to be an inspiration for dialogue. Eugene Butler, a Seeds of Peace senior counselor and emcee for the evening, began with a medley of original spoken word pieces about his coming-of-age experiences of race in America—a performance met with the first of many standing ovations throughout the evening. The set list included a Shakespeare scene performed by Maine’s own Theater Ensemble of Color, the Sudanese dance group Sudo Girls, Seeds of Peace student vocalists and poets, and a featured finale entitled “Do you See Me?” by Maine Inside Out, a theater group comprised of young people from Long Creek Youth Development Center.
“What an amazing evening of sharing. It showed so many young people at their best,” said Tim Wilson, who directs the Maine Seeds program. Sarah Brajtbord, U.S.-Based Program Manager at Seeds, echoed Tim’s sentiments. “It was a beautiful evening of storytelling, expression, reflection, and sharing from all of Maine’s communities. The vibrancy of the evening performances clearly inspired the deep conversations and learnings that happened the next day.” Tessy Seward, Maine Inside Out’s co-founder, added, “Our participants were so moved by the other performances and were thrilled to be a part of a community of artists and activists. MIO hopes to host some of the other performers for training and future collaboration. It was an honor to be included in this powerful showcase of socially inspired art.”
On Saturday morning, as snow fell steadily outside, students were actively drawing one another’s stories to the surface through highly participatory dialogue sessions, each focused on a specific aspect of student experience. Student Summit planners had partnered with local youth groups on session planning , which made for a compelling array of over thirty workshops that also brought adults, educators, and community leaders into the conversations. Collaborations with the Telling Room, Youth Engagement Partners, NAMI’s Youth Advisory Council, King Fellows, Maine Youth Court, MIST (Muslim Interscholastic Tournament), NPR’s Maine Youth Voices, Preble Street Resource, and Skew-ME (a nonprofit supporting learning differences) helped to craft open-ended spaces for ideas to be both presented and challenged in the kinds of conversations that are too often avoided.
In the Waynflete student-led workshop about starting racial awareness groups in schools,student leaders grappled with just how difficult community dialogue can be. Reflecting back on that session, one participant remarked, “I learned how to not be afraid to speak or stand up for something that I am passionate about and how to support others when they are being treated wrongly. These conversations need to occur more often and need to make people conscious and uncomfortable. The Summit should definitely happen again.”
In addition to Mr. Blanco, keynotes included a student dialogue with Portland’s Chief of Police, activist Nicole Maines (whose story is highlighted in the book Becoming Nicole) speaking about her experience as a transgender student, and a panel facilitated by Maine Law School’s Dean Danielle Conway on the emerging Black Lives Matter movement on high school and university campuses. Workshops addressed a wide variety of topics, from “The Dance of Activism and Self-Care” to “Stamping Out Stigma,” which provided resources for helping students access critical mental health supports in a stressful world. “Talking about it makes it easier to cope,” said one student, while another was clearly “inspired by the honesty of all the participants who shared.”
The gathering closed with a final speak out session facilitated by guest artists Eric Axelman and Oliver Arias, of the bicultural hip hop group Funk Underground. As the day drew to a celebratory close, one student remarked, “I want people to know that, as I have learned, it is okay to struggle. Practicing self-acceptance is a radical act that helps us to connect with others.”
No Higher Calling
Given the alarming fraying of today’s social fabric, it is hard to imagine a more important undertaking for a school than teaching not only tolerance of those with different backgrounds and viewpoints but also how to tap the life-affirming wisdom and power inherent in such diversity. In thanking faculty and staff whose hard work throughout the year was key to the Summit’s success, Head of School Geoff Wagg said, “The Summit provided a meaningful outlet for all the angst that is bottled up inside. You provided a safe space that made dialogue possible on a whole range of difficult social topics. You empowered our students to do something productive. There is no higher calling than to give our students—and many beyond the walls of Waynflete—a voice and the power to make a difference in our world.”
The lead organizers of the Summit were Lydia Maier, Waynflete’s Director of Student Affairs, and Jimmy Manyuru, the Associate Director. In her welcoming remarks, Lydia conjured a central image from Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem One Today: “One light, waking up rooftops, under each one a story.” Building on that image, Lydia invited the audience “to share what we believe, what we fear, what we wish for” and warned them that doing so is “no easy undertaking.” She thanked Summit attendees “for showing up to share your piece of our collective story.”
Our hope is that participants left the Summit inspired to keep showing up and sharing their pieces of our collective story, with the curiosity to listen deeply to others and the courage to be changed by the conversation. In so doing, we can all contribute to mending the social fabric—a healing upon which so much else depends.
The next New England Youth Identity Summit will be held at Waynflete on April 6-7, 2018.
Waynflete Organizing Committee:
Lydia Maier, Director of Student Affairs
Jimmy Manyuru, Associate Director of Student Affairs
Juanita Nichols, Director of Community Relations and Diversity
Rand Ardell, Director of Marketing and Communications
Sue Stein, EAL Coordinator
Ben Lewis, Upper School Assistant