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Student founders from the We Are America Project shared their stories of navigating issues of diversity in the United States in a workshop at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Gutnam Gallery Wednesday night.
Lowell High School teacher Jessica A. A. D. Lander and students in her course on diversity in America launched the project last year. The program seeks to promote conversations about what it means to be an American within today’s political and social context. Since it began, 1300 students from 23 states have participated.
Lander said she started the project to show her students that their experiences form a part of American history.
“I wanted my kids to see that their stories were just as much a part of American history, and that the real American history is made up of all those individual stories—all those individual strands—and we can really only fully understand American history, American diversity by understanding each of those strands,” she said.
Adam Strom, director of the education initiative Re-Imagining Migration, moderated the event. The group aims to educate young people on topics related to migration.
“We’re talking about ideas about America that are not very inclusive. There’s an urgency to these conversations because we’ve been having this conversation about who is an American and what is America since before the United States was born,” Strom said in his opening remarks. “These are ongoing debates. It’s particularly heated around schools.”
Lander said she and her students began the project by writing "We Are America," a book that compiled stories from students in her class about their identities. The book then developed into a nationwide project.
Philly Marte, one of the student founders of the project, said he enjoyed working to redefine American history to be more inclusive and diverse.
“This project and these stories will create a sense of unity within this country, within the people that are writing these stories and reading these stories. Your story matters, your voice matters, and there’s someone else that has gone through what you have and understands,” he said.
Wednesday’s event opened with a panel, where students answered questions about their personal experiences. The audience then broke into small groups facilitated by the student panelists to discuss questions about their own American identities. Finally, attendees rejoined for an audience question and answer session with the students.
Abigail S. Williamson, a Salem public school teacher who attended the panel, said the event inspired her to listen more deeply and ask her students more about their lives.
“I think it reminded me how important listening to students is and the power of students’ stories. As a teacher, it's so important to know who our students are not just academically, but their life stories and who they are at a deeper level,” she said.
Lander said she hopes that students across campuses everywhere will engage in more conversations about American identity in the future, especially with regard to diversity.
“I think through hearing these stories and sharing stories on campus, you gain a lot of acceptance of others by finding those connection points,” she said. “I think we do that through storytelling and being willing to share and to be a little bit vulnerable. The work that you guys do in college is building new connections and creating your community. This is the work of your generation.”
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