‘There is still a lot of isolation’: Hampton Roads students gather at Fort Monroe for summit on how to make schools more inclusive

·3 min read

Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities’ Connections Summit returned in-person to Hampton for the first time since the pandemic, gathering about 20 students and staff from across Hampton Roads and surrounding region to discuss how to combat bullying and create safe spaces in local schools.

The students came to Fort Monroe for three days to discuss ways to make schools more inclusive.

Jessica Hawthorne, vice president of programs at Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, said COVID made a connections-focused summit even more important.

“We’ve seen challenges with schools that have had a hard time coming back together as a community,” Hawthorne said. “I think there was a lot of isolation, and there still is a lot of isolation. There’s a lot of communities that have been hit very hard by the ripple effects of COVID.”

The purpose of the summit, which ended Thursday, Hawthorne said, was to build a small community of students across lines of difference, with hopes that their sense of community will ripple out into the larger community as they look to make more inclusive changes in their schools.

The program looks to build community through workshops, large group sessions and small group sessions where students are encouraged to form even closer connections.

Although students and staff remained masked throughout the program, Charlie Boyd, a 67-year-old Lynchburg resident and VCIC board member, said the non-verbal cues that students can use at an in-person summit are invaluable when building relationships.

Relationship-based learning, where students are encouraged to speak up instead of listening to lectures, is what makes these programs so effective — it’s kept Boyd coming back to volunteer for 25 years, even if it means driving three hours.

“Nobody’s standing up on a soapbox preaching and yelling at you talking to you,” Boyd said. “‘You can convince somebody against their will, but they’re of the same opinion still,’ That’s a little saying I heard a long time ago. We’re trying to reach a consensus, we’re trying to get people to understand. If they need to change, then it’s a voluntary change that they make.”

Baz Forest, a 17-year-old rising senior at York High School, said he often feels shy in group and classwork settings, a feeling that was amplified once he came out as transgender and began to use he/him pronouns last year.

At Connections, he said, he felt safe to talk about the challenges he faces in school, while learning about those faced by others.

“I would never have gotten to talk to these people in school,” Forest said. “We’d avoid each other because we’re not in the same social groups. But because we’re here, and these serious topics, like sexism, and racism and homophobia are readily presented to us, we’re able to have these open and honest conversations.

“That exposure really helps me to examine all of my social conditioning and biases.”

Tiamarie Hughes, a rising sophomore at the Global Studies and World Languages Academy at Tallwood High School in Virginia Beach, took a long bus ride every day at 8 a.m. to make it to Hampton. Her challenges in school have often stemmed from how she is treated as a Black student, she said, even as far back as middle school, where she could count the number of Black students on two hands.

“While attending that school, I wanted so hard to go against their stereotypes,” Hughes said. “Of course, because of my race, they assumed I was going to be loud or ill-mannered, not succeed in school. I just remember always trying so hard to remain calm, well-mannered, I tried my best to succeed on my tests just to prove them wrong.”

Even among like-minded peers, these experiences are not something Hughes is comfortable speaking about. But the rules of the summit, like confidentiality and mutual respect, made a safe space for her to open up.

Next year, COVID-permitting, Hawthorn said the group looks to expand the program and touch even more students.