Every Friday night, 13 Blair students and three Blair faculty members gather in the Chiang-Elghanayan Center for Innovation and Collaboration over pizza and snacks to examine what it feels like to belong, both in the Blair community and beyond, and what students can do to promote that feeling among others.
With the goal of fostering important conversations about inclusion, diversity, equity and social justice, the seminar explores different definitions of these concepts, as well as the joy and pressures associated with being one’s authentic self in today’s “call-out” culture, where so many share their unsolicited opinions in person and online.
Led by Blair’s scholar-in-residence Timothy Patrick McCarthy, PhD, Associate Dean of Students Andee Ryerson and language teacher Sharon Merrifield, the seminar can be taken for credit if participants opt to collaborate with a faculty member to plan a Martin Luther King Jr. seminar during the third week in January. The design and execution of these sessions on diversity and inclusion serve as the seminar’s capstone, a particularly meaningful exercise in light of the fact that the entire student body must take part in at least two MLK seminars.
"'Belonging at Blair' seeks to give students a space to explore the vital issues of diversity and inclusion as they relate to our collective efforts to build community out of the many identities and experiences represented at Blair,” said Dr. McCarthy, who is a lecturer on history and literature, public policy and education at Harvard Kennedy School, a core faculty member at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and visiting professor of public service and social justice at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
“In a world that is increasingly fractured and polarized, where attempts to find common ground are too often undermined by political divisions and personal misunderstandings, we hope this seminar will serve as an antidote,” he added. “Together, Andee, Sharon and I are committed to finding a productive way to work with students to create a school culture where everyone feels like they truly belong."
It’s All About Perspective
The very different perspectives of the seminar’s leaders has been one of its biggest draws. While Dr. McCarthy brings years of experience as a seasoned college and graduate school professor, communications expert and social justice advocate who can talk more broadly about the human experience in settings outside of boarding school, Mrs. Ryerson knows firsthand how important it is for Blair students to have these conversations in the School’s always close-knit and supportive community—which has never before so explicitly addressed such issues.
“I hope kids take away a greater understanding of their own experience and the experience of those around them, with a new appreciation for the courage it takes to have uncomfortable conversations,” said Mrs. Ryerson. Exiting comfort zones has been one of the seminar’s biggest takeaways, with participants discussing a wide range of topics, including the messages delivered by all-school speaker and Athlete Ally founder Hudson Taylor ’05, and podcasts and academic articles examining identity, politically correct culture, social pressures and censorship.
Of course, given the ubiquity of technology and the increasingly rapid pace of life and change in society, all of this is made even more meaningful by the fact that today’s adolescents face a unique blend of social/emotional pressures and moral challenges, something that Blair is addressing by making student health and well-being a top priority in its 2018-2025 Strategic Plan, All In. With that in mind, Mrs. Merrifield brings a unique lens to the seminar as the only Blair teacher who is working toward certification in mindfulness meditation, a practice that aims to increase self-awareness of one’s thoughts and emotions in a way not meant to control or change them, but to give pause and promote understanding before making judgements or reacting.
“In the age of social media and smartphones, our students are increasingly pulled in many different directions and, while these devices and platforms are meant to connect us, there is also research showing that they cause an equal amount of isolation and anxiety,” said Ms. Merrifield, who will finish a yearlong Mindful Schools certification course for teachers, counselors and social workers this summer. “As a result, it can be hard to be in the moment and be present, both of which are important for the types of discussions we have in this seminar.”
The Art of Mindful Meditation
Throughout the fall semester, the three teachers have incorporated mindful meditation techniques into all of their work with students, even helping participants practice breathing exercises to focus and "get in the right headspace" before discussions.
Given the research that shows mindful meditation not only helps students be more focused, but also helps with impulse control and self-awareness, Ms. Merrifield has incorporated its practice into all of her classes and has led Sunday Evening Reflections on the topic. “Our seminar focuses on belonging, and you can’t truly explore that concept without being fully present and aware of what you are bringing to the table,” she added. “You have to be present to build relationships. And, with time and practice, you become more familiar with the landscape of your own mind and acceptance of yourself and others, which is incredibly helpful in examining topics such as diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice.”
Curiosity & Open Mindedness
The evening seminar brings together students of all levels of interest in inclusion and diversity. Ellie Walker '23 had heard from several classmates who had taken Blair's human rights seminar last year that Dr. McCarthy offered fascinating perspectives and facilitated "amazing" conversations, so she went to the first session curious and with an open mind. What has impressed her most in the weeks since is how passionate she and her fellow classmates are about the topics they discuss, and how comfortable and supported she feels with her teachers and peers. "We have really strong, productive and profound conversations, which I love to engage in," she said. "Everyone takes the seminar seriously; they come ready to discuss deep subjects and willing to engage in meaningful dialogue. It's hard to choose a favorite part because the seminar is so amazing, and I look forward to every Friday night because of it."
And the experience of working with Dr. McCarthy, as well as Mrs. Ryerson and Mrs. Merrifield, has lived up to every expectation she had going into the experience. "All three teachers are incredible and working with them has been really eye-opening," Ellie explained. "In helping us explore the answers to complex questions, they offer captivating perspective...and Mrs. Ryerson brings food!"
For Avery Lehman ’21, the pizza served at the group’s first meeting was a big draw, as was the thought-provoking announcement that Mrs. Ryerson and Mrs. Merrifield made at School Meeting about the seminar. “They asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine the perfect Blair student, and then to ask ourselves why we thought of the person we did,” Avery said. “This was a really intriguing exercise, and I wanted to know more.”
Over the course of the fall and winter months, Avery has enjoyed hearing her classmates’ interesting perspectives during “complex and exciting” conversations driven in part by “provocative and interesting questions” posed by Dr. McCarthy, Mrs. Merrifield and Mrs. Ryerson. Avery credits the seminar’s teachers with keeping discussions on track as people go off on tangents and reminding everyone to be respectful of one another.
And, while the discussion thus far has been limited to the seminar’s 13 participants, the Blair community at large will enjoy the fruits of seminar participants’ labor come January 20, when the MLK seminars begin. “The fact that every Blair student engages in this program makes it incredibly impactful,” concluded Mrs. Ryerson. “Having been so impressed by how these students can dissect ideas and talk about how they are interrelated in our Friday night discussions, we can’t wait to see what they do come January.”