New student-based group seeks to promote racial understanding

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By Richard Li, News Editor

More than 50 students of diverse backgrounds have started participating in diversity training as a part of the new Students Organized for Anti-Racism (SOAR) initiative.

The district created SOAR in partnership with the Pacific Educational Group, a consulting firm dedicated to promoting racial equity. Headed by English teachers Keri Phillips and Tricia Ebarvia along with counselor Leashia Lewis, SOAR is designed to encourage students to become leaders in promoting racial equity. Counselor Rachelle Gough and teachers Seth Dixon and Alex Solove have also assisted in organizing the group and facilitating their workshops.

“I think the general purpose of SOAR as a whole is to give students the opportunity to have conversations about race and equity — to give them a chance to explore their own identities, their biases, their experiences with race in the building,” Phillips said. 

According to Lewis, the Pacific Educational Group began working with the faculty at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year. The SOAR initiative was created with the intention of including students in the racial equity training.

“In order to make systematic changes around race and equity, PG really believes that we have to work with district office, principals, teachers and students,” Lewis said.

Teachers and counselors nominated members of SOAR with the goal of creating a diverse group of students that represents all of Conestoga. Over the course of two years, students will participate in seven in-school workshops led by members of the Pacific Educational Group as well as mini-workshops headed by the group’s advisers. Within these workshops, students learn how to discuss their personal racial identities in a comfortable manner.

“Right now, it’s all about (students’) own training, because conversations about race are really hard. A lot of the focus is on understanding themselves,” Ebarvia said. Ebarvia is happy to see the initiative come to Conestoga, as she feels like the opportunity to discuss race as high schoolers is one that students in other schools might not have.

“I think that racial literacy — understanding how race plays a role in our lives and the lives of other people — is a really critical thing to have,” Ebarvia said. “And it’s such an opportunity for high school kids, because when I think about my own experience and my own racial identity, I didn’t really think about what that meant until I got to college.”

Although the group has not yet directly brought their training to the rest of the school, senior and SOAR member Vidya Patel believes SOAR can eventually help promote a safer learning environment at Conestoga.

“I feel as though SOAR will help our school get a better grasp on how to deal with racial and ethnic issues that show up in our day-to-day lives,” Patel said. “I think SOAR will help students gain the skills to handle these situations effectively and, in turn, help the school become a better and more equal learning environment.”

Junior John Yu, another member of SOAR, hopes that as they learn to discuss their own identities, they can encourage similar discussions among peers.

“After our work is done, and even as it is being done, we can start similar conversation(s) outside the classroom that can spark a conversation to spread awareness,” Yu said.

Like Patel and Yu, sophomore SOAR member Amy Douglas is confident in the effects the group will bring to Conestoga.

“I believe that SOAR will have a positive impact on the school, as it will start a discussion about a better understanding of our differences, building an acceptance of who we are,” Douglas said.

Witnessing firsthand the engagement of students in the workshops, Phillips is excited to see how SOAR will affect the student body as a whole in the coming years.

“It’s really clear to me, when you see the students doing the work and you’re in these conversations, how invested they are in this equity work, how important it is to the students,” Phillips said. “I believe that empowering the students to have these conversations and look for these conversations on their own is going to be a good thing for the building.”