Young Men of Color Symposium

By The Weekly Student-Journalist Alex Ori ’20

Despite it being 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday, Parker’s lobby was buzzing. One hundred twenty young boys from fifth through twelfth grade were scattered throughout the front hall. Some of them donned white shirts that read, “Name, Define, Create & Speak.” Others came in wearing Patagonias.

On Saturday November 3, young boys, teenagers, and volunteers took part in the Young Men of Color Symposium, hosted at Parker. The symposium was open for “young self-identified men of color, who attend independent schools in the Chicago area,” according to the Parker website.

Over 120 students from different independent schools and volunteers were in attendance, with 16 independent schools represented. In addition to nearby institutions like Latin School of Chicago and Chicago Laboratory School, students from The Blake School flew 600 miles from Minneapolis to attend.

Inspiration sparked after Upper School Head Justin Brandon and Middle and Upper School Director of Studies Sven Carlsson attended a similar symposium last fall, hosted at Riverdale Country School in New York City.

Riverdale’s Director of Hill Campus Community Engagement and Middle School and Upper School English teacher Dwight Vidale started the symposium ten years ago.

“Through various workshops, we challenge the young men to interrogate both their racial marginalization and their gender identity privilege,” Vidale said.

Brandon remembers leaving the symposium in New York with ideas. “After we experienced it, we said, ‘this is definitely something we should have at Parker,’” Brandon said. Soon after, he reached out to Vidale and suggested they recreate one in Chicago. Later that spring, Vidale flew to Parker and met with Carlsson, members of the Men of Color Heritage Affinity group (MOCHA), and Athletic Director Bobby Starks.

Author and Robin Hood’s Chief Executive Officer Wes Moore kicked off the symposium in the Heller Auditorium. Moore forwent a podium or slideshow and instead addressed his audience with raw authenticity. To start off, he asked a simple question: “Why are you here?”

Like many of the young men at this conference, Moore was enrolled at a predominately white, independent middle school in the Bronx. There, “I found myself trying to be a chameleon trying to fi t in every where I was,” Moore said. “But if I was never honest with who I was, I was never going to fi t in anywhere.”

As Moore walked around on stage, he matched with most of the audience as he wore his “Name, Define, Create & Speak” long sleeve over his button down. He told the crowd never to be apologetic about who they were.

As he finished, he asked the crowd to, “take [your power], use that, and go out there and live a really interesting life.”

After the presentation, students were split up by grade to meet in “group sessions.” These sessions were led by volunteer facilitators. All facilitators had to take part in a combined six hours of training prior to the program. Members of faculty, such as P.E. teacher Terry Davis, health teacher Dr. Gary Childrey, and eighth grade math teacher and department co-chair Kam Woodard were some of the many Parker faces. In these hour-long group sessions, students talked about “what it’s like to be them at their school and community.”

“Part of my hope for the day was to provide a space for young men of color just to talk and to be,” Brandon said. “Just to be heard and be seen.”
In room 185, 18 fifth through seventh graders were asked to think of words they thought coincided with “man.” As they shared, their words were written on a whiteboard. By the end, the board was covered with characteristics, including “son,” “muscle,” “mature,” and “facial hair.”

They were then asked to add characteristics if the category was changed to “man of color.” New additions included “not respected” and “stereotypes.” A ten year old wearing a Compton hat contributed, “oppressed, with an ‘o!’”

Despite the discussion facilitators being equipped with long scripts, they rarely had to use them. “Vidale told us if you just start with one question you’ll be amazed to see what happens,” Brandon said, “and how students will take ownership of the experience and really get into it––and that’s what happened.” Vidale remembers his past experience when thinking of the inspiration of the symposium. “I often wished, as a student, there was space to converse with other students of color about the experiences I had in and out of the classroom,” Vidale said.

Now, the symposium in New York hosts 250+ participants.

In the preparation leading up to the symposium, Vidale visited MOCHA to try out an exercise that later appeared in the symposium. MOCHA Head Chad White liked how the discussions didn’t narrowly focus on men of color. “I was really happy that they touched about questions like ‘how do we support our female counterparts?’” White said. “Not just, ‘let’s focus on ourselves,’ but ‘let’s also talk about other people, and how our relationship with them is impacted because we are a man of color.’”

White looks into the future of MOCHA after the symposium. “[I want to make] it feel like MOCHA is a place that you might need,” White said, “instead of a place where you stop by and get food.”

Laboratory School eighth grader Kenneth Peters benefited from being around people who shared the same obstacles as him. “It’s crazy to realize how there can be so many people that have the same experiences as me,” Peters said. “It was interesting to see how we have problems with the same things but we’ve never met each other before.”

Looking into the future, Childrey wants to recognize women of color’s needs as well. “I think it’s important for men of color to get together,” Childrey said, “but there’s also a population of women of color too, who I think we really have to address their needs as well.”

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Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.