Beautiful – is it a trait defined as internal or external? Is it gender specific? Does it provoke confidence, comfort or judgment?
Those are some questions middle school students from across the region pondered on Thursday, March 21, during the second annual Affirming Community Together Conference, this year held at Charlotte Latin School. The conference, directed by upper school students from Charlotte Latin School, Charlotte Country Day School and Providence Day School, is a collaboration between the three schools to help engage middle school students from across Charlotte on topics about leadership and diversity. This year’s conference was two fold, covering topics about “knowing yourself” and “doing what’s right.”
“We find that when the students can take their power back in defining who they are and not letting others do that for them, the can be better leaders,” Ayeola Elias, director of diversity and multiculturalism at Charlotte Latin, said. “They can be more confident in who they are as individuals.”
Elias, who helped coordinate the event at Charlotte Latin, said around 160 middle school students attended the conference this year, up from 130 last year. Middle school students were not only from Charlotte Latin, Country Day and Providence Day, but also from Trinity Episcopal School, Cannon School, Woodlawn School and Charlotte Preparatory School in south Charlotte.
The Upper School students leading the sessions decided on which topics to cover, this year brainstorming ways to help middle schools students create more inclusive environments. The group of students all have an interest in encouraging inclusion and tolerance throughout their schools; most belong to diversity clubs and were excited to collaborate together and help middle school students get a head start on understanding what it means to be accepting of others.
“Working outside of our communities is just as important as working in our communities,” Elias said. “True growth happens when we step out of our comfort zones. It’s no longer about the individual. It’s not just about the groups within the schools, the school or even the independent schools – it becomes about people just working together.”
And the upper school students love what they’re doing for the middle school students, many explaining they didn’t receive the diversity training they are providing when they were in middle school.
For Sarah Whitmore, an upper school student at Charlotte Latin, she said middle school students were eager to talk about issues such as intolerance, cyber bullying, self-confidence and more. She says it’s important for students to understand at a young age what it means to be invested in the well being of the community.
“It’s important to start young, planting these seeds,” Sarah said. “They will need the skills like how to work with different types of people in order to succeed in the world today.”
Senior Katie Mayopoulos was a leader at the conference last year, which focused on bullying. She said this year’s conference really built on skills and themes of last year’s event, though she says this year’s could be applied to an even broader scope of students.
“When it comes to bullying, someone thinks ‘If it’s not me, I’ll just stay out of it.’ Being a bystander is much more real life for more of these kids,” Katie said about the “doing the right thing” theme. “And middle school is such a tough time to be an individual. By the time you’re in high school, students should really know what they believe in.”
The upper school students all hope the middle school participants will take what they learn back into their own communities, creating a waterfall of change throughout the Charlotte region.
“It’s been an amazing, amazing experience,” Elias added. “It shows we can really work together among independent schools.”