Young students at The College School in Webster Groves use beige, brown and darker brown crayons to color human figures. Educators tell students they can use any color they want to draw people, even if the person’s color does not match their own.
This is a part of the school’s Witnessing Whiteness program, a program based on the book “Witnessing Whiteness” by Shelly Tochluk and is dedicated to helping white people recognize and combat systemic racism through action and conversation. The program is a voluntary program offered to faculty and staff of The College School and is not part of the required curriculum for students.
The College School was founded in 1963 as a project of Webster University to explore different teaching methods. The historical progressiveness of the school is what paves way for things like Witnessing Whiteness, Vincent Flewellen, the Director of Equality and Inclusion at The College School said.
The program is dictated by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) whose goal is to eliminate racism and empower women, according to their website. Flewellen says when we talk about racism, it’s important to mediate the conversation.
“It’s our belief that we should provide opportunities for white individuals to come into a space, to have conversations among themselves that is facilitated by individuals through the YWCA program to help them process and navigate those waters of understanding unconscious and conscious bias and racism,” Flewellen said.
The College School has always been open to giving students a voice, according to Alumni Liz Sharpe-Taylor. Sharpe-Taylor said growing up in the school as a black person, she feels the school has always been conscious enough to introduce programs that encouraged her voice as an individual. But to Sharpe-Taylor, this program is the most important in times of conflict.
“Especially in the aftermath of what happened with Mike Brown and the things that are transpiring because of the Stockley verdict,” Sharpe-Taylor said. “This program is specifically geared towards letting people have a safe space for brave conservations. Faculty and staff participation helps because it allows them to examine their own self in an introspective type of way.”
When things like the Stockley Verdict happen in St. Louis, the program aims to spark a conversation. On the day of the verdict, Flewellen said instead of talking about the case, they focused on talking about the emotions involved and understanding others thoughts and feelings about the verdict. A big part of this was allowing students at the middle school level to understand the potential of protests using age appropriate examples.
“When you’re on the playground and you see a kid crying, you’re not just gonna run past him and go play soccer. You stop, you engage, you see what’s going on, you understand why the person is hurting,” Flewellen said. “We encouraged our students to take time to talk with their families about feelings that people will potentially demonstrating in the weeks to come and for them to take some time to figure out what that’s about.”
Even with only 26 percent of The College School’s population being of a racial minority, nearly half of the school signed up for the group. The importance of sparking a conversation about race in the classroom even starting from preschool and kindergarten, is because it’s a part of each child’s identity, according to Ed Maggart, head of The College School.
“While we want to treat all children with equity, it doesn’t mean all children are the same,” Maggart said. “[the program] is an attempt to recognize, understand and celebrate that.”
* Additional reporting by Haley Walter