On January 13th and 26th, the Oyster River school district will be putting on two events centered around sharing perspectives about diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) work in the community.
The first event on January 13th will consist of facilitated small group discussions to work through different DEIJ-themed questions and share perspectives. The second event on January 26th will be formed based on the topics and feedback from the first event and will have a panel addressing concerns and answering questions. Both events are open to anyone in the Oyster River district interested and will be virtual through Microsoft Teams due to COVID-19. Registration for the Teams link is available through the flyer. DEIJ topics are important to many members of the community and these events will allow people’s voices to be heard while also educating the district about DEIJ in the classroom, hearing new, different perspectives, and all in all: Building Bridges.
School board member and DEIJ committee member, Yusi Turell, described part of the inspiration, “we knew we wanted teachers and administrators to have a chance to share what goes on in the classroom and to answer questions. But the planning team realized that much of the controversy about DEIJ – at least nationally – is because of broader polarization and division in society. Before we were ready to present on DEIJ work in the schools, we should start with neighbor-to-neighbor dialogues to share thoughts and concerns and to identify common ground.”
Oyster River has had similar events in the past, however not in the two-event series format. The Assistant Superintendent, Suzanne Filippone, was also on the planning committee and said, “the district has had panel discussions and forums [in the past]. There have been a lot of questions [about DEIJ] that people have had, so we just want to keep that conversation going and do so in a way that promotes good faith, openness, and fosters comfort and safety for everybody. It’s a continuation of something the district has been doing all along.”
The first event will be small group discussions created with the breakout room feature on Microsoft Teams. Planning committee member and fifth grade teacher at Oyster River Middle School, Kyra Dulmage, explained the format and said, “we’re going to try to invite as many people from as diverse perspectives as possible [within] the community to try and build bridges.” Dulmage said that the goal of the event is to “help start a dialogue between people who might have different perspectives about [DEIJ] work and these kinds of issues in our community and just discuss what we’re noticing our community needs are, what people’s concerns are, and what they’re excited to see happen.”
“We want to make it feel like a living room conversation. Something that you would have with family and friends, sitting around together. Some of it is going to just be getting comfortable with each other in these small groups and then we’ll have a series of questions that people can pick from and have conversations around,” said Filippone.
Paige Burt (‘23) is a co-founder of the DEIJ subcommittee club at Oyster River High School. She is planning to attend at least one of the events coming up and said, “I think the idea of the events is to get a dialogue started between members of the community who don’t necessarily see eye to eye. I think it’s important to recognize that it’s hard to accomplish anything when we’re always surrounded by like-minded thinkers.” Burt continued, “it’s important to have conversations with people who disagree with you and who you disagree with because it’s really the only way you can solve problems internally and externally. I think it’s a really good thing that we’re doing this for our community.”
Turell shared Burt’s sentiment and said, “I hope this event is a small step towards connecting with people in our community who are outside of our own like-minded bubbles. If we can all open up, get a little vulnerable, and listen deeply in good faith, then we can build empathy and deepen our understanding of others’ motivations and fears.”
The second event will be panel-style, focused on important issues brought up in the first event. The panel will be made up of teachers, administrators, and students to help educate, inform, and address concerns from community members.
“We haven’t completely worked out all of the details of the second event and part of that is intentional because we want to get feedback from the small group dialogues and discussions and want to hear people’s thoughts and feelings. That will help us to shape what that panel dialogue will look like,” said Filippone.
Caroline Sterndale (‘28) is a member of the social-justice club at ORMS and is planning to attend both events. She shared what she is most excited about and said, “I’m always looking forward to hearing the student voice because I think that is so powerful in the district [since] there’s not always a lot of it.”
For people who attend these events and want to get more involved, there is the social-justice club at ORMS which Sterndale mentioned, the DEIJ subcommittee club at ORHS, and also the large DEIJ committee which anyone can join. Burt encouraged people who are interested to get involved and said, “it’s kind of [for] anyone that feels passionate about it… There’s a place for everyone.” To join the DEIJ club at ORHS, students can contact Burt, or the other co-founders Maya Ajit and Zoe Selig. To join the large DEIJ committee, people can contact anyone on the committee they know or Michele Holt-Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org) of NH Listens who organizes the meetings.
Many are optimistic about these events and what they can bring to the district. Filippone said, “I really hope that we have people come and [that] we can foster a feeling of community and open dialogue because that’s one of the things I think Oyster River has: A strong sense of community.”