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Conversing about Culture in a Safe Space

BY MADELINE ZUKOWSKI, DSHA '11
DSHA students, faculty and staff discuss the importance of Black History Month through a special Dasher Dialogue.


Fashion brand Gucci had an item on the runway this past winter that appeared to mimic blcakface: a black turtleneck worn up over the nose, with a red-lined cutout for a woman's mouth. 

Members of the Student Diversity and Inclusion Committee of Student Council took notice. To them, this was a symbol of racial inequality, something they are still facing today. They decided to plan a Dasher Dialogue.
 
Understanding different cultures and discussing hard topics are the purpose of DSHA’s Dasher Dialogues. Dasher Dialogues, held five or six times a year, give students who choose to attend — and the wider school community, including faculty and staff — a safe space to discuss current events and their relation to social justice issues. A Dasher Dialogue was held Feb. 15 focused around Black History Month.
 
“The theme is not to wash over or make light of any of the struggle or any of the challenges, but it’s continually having dialogue, forming relationships, not just sitting with people that are like you, being on your phones less at school so you can talk to other people in your class and learn about their perspectives,” said Kathleen Cullen, DSHA ’05, Director of Campus Ministry.
 
The Student Diversity and Inclusion Committee, led by Jim Wilkinsonthe Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator of the school, was joined by members of the Sisters of Culture Club to plan this specific Dasher Dialogue. They formed questions to kick-start the dialogue. The questions included: “Why do we need to celebrate Black History Month?” “In what ways is Black history American history?” “Is dedicating a specific month the best way to celebrate Black history?” and “How do we incorporate Black History Month activities into DSHA’s curriculum so students are exposed to Black history in all their subject areas and at various times throughout the year?”
 
“Many people question why there is such a thing as a Black History Month,” said Bre Knight, DSHA ’19, a member of both the Student Diversity and Inclusion Committee and Sisters of Culture. She said the group planned the Dasher Dialogue to find out why other students saw a need for a Black History Month.
 
Open communication with one another
 
All students are welcome and invited to the discussion, not just the African American students—in fact, Knight said that those who planned the dialogue wanted to hear everyone’s opinions.
 
“There are a ton of difficult cultures that you can be exposed to at DSHA,” Annika Johnson, DSHA ‘20, said. “There’s a complete spectrum of different people you can talk to about culture.”
 
But can a conversation about culture or race happen outside of Dasher Dialogues?   
 
Kiley Robbins, DSHA ’20, a member of the Sisters of Culture club at DSHA, believes these difficult but impactful discussions can happen beyond the Dasher Dialogue format—in classrooms, during lunch or even one-on-one with friends. But she doesn’t see it happening outside of the facilitated, set-aside time to discuss it.
 
“I think people are uncomfortable sometimes,” she said. “They don’t want to say the wrong thing or accidentally hurt anyone’s feelings.”
 
“There’s a nervousness about discussion,” Johnson said. “People might be hesitant to talk to someone with a different culture because she is not your friend or she’s not in one of your classes.”
 
In fact, Johnson wants to feel comfortable asking questions to a classmate of hers who is of Muslim faith. But her classmate isn’t a close friend of hers.
 
Despite hesitations, students like Robbins and Johnson feel the opportunity to be open about topics like culture and race is unique to DSHA.
 
“I definitely don’t feel as restricted to what I have to say because (Dasher Dialogue is) a space literally meant for saying what you feel,” Mary McDonald, DSHA ’20, a Sisters of Culture member, said. “I feel encouraged that DSHA has (Dasher Dialogues) because if I went to another school, I don’t even know where I would go or if I would get reprimanded for saying things that I have to say.”
 
Having discussions about Black History Month or race-related topics helps students of color feel welcome, said Robbins, especially when they are often surrounded by girls in class who look different and have different traditions than they do.
 
“It’s beneficial for our school to be known as a place where we have these conversations and not a place that ignores these things,” Robbins said.
 
It’s especially beneficial for a school in the city of Milwaukee to encourage dialogue about race, said Cullen.
 
“Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country,” she said. “It can be really easy to be pessimistic and get upset about how we’re so divided, but this opportunity (to have this dialogue) doesn’t happen at other places. At other schools, there’s a lot less diversity because of how subdivisions are organized.”
 
Sparks of Change
 
Not only is the open dialogue unique to DSHA, but the way the school celebrates culture is unique, said Johnson.
 
“At DSHA, I feel like there’s definitely more of a unity amongst people with different backgrounds,” she said.
 
This past school year, two all-school Masses have been centered around culture: Black History Month Mass, and a Mass celebrating the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, commonly celebrated by those of Hispanic culture.
 
“DSHA is trying (to be more inclusive),” McDonald said. “We’re definitely not there yet, but they’re making attempts.”
 
Robbins said she’s seen the attempts in the past two years at school. “I don’t remember having Dasher Dialogues or talking about racial issues or things like that, and now we talk about those things and we address those issues,” she said. “I feel like DSHA for sure has grown a lot and is still growing to become a more diverse community.”
 
While different cultures are becoming more celebrated, there is a feeling among a number of students that diverse cultures, especially African American culture, is not celebrated in DSHA’s curriculum. Many feel the curriculum focuses on the negative aspects of African American history.
 
“There are so many upstanding figures in Black history that we don’t talk about,” said Johnson. “They should be more incorporated because the only thing that we see, even as children, is ‘Oh, I was a slave,’ not ‘I have backgrounds in music, history, philosophy and science.’”
 
Robbins has seen the Dasher Dialogues become more widely attended, especially by teachers, who can start having these conversations and discussion inside their own classrooms, she said.
 
“It gives me a lot of hope for the future, that students from different backgrounds will be more comfortable coming here,” she said. “We do talk about these things, and we have assemblies and Masses to celebrate race and culture.”
 
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    • Students gather in Social Studies Faculty Patrick Dawson's room to discuss the importance of Black History Month during the Feb. 15 Dasher Dialogue. It was one of four rooms where Dashers engaged in dialogue with each other.

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