New Partnership Brings DEI to High School Students

Be the CAUSE (Catalyst for Advocacy and Unified Student Empowerment) is a new community partnership between Merrimack and Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts which aims to bring diversity awareness training to high school students.

  • The first workshop of Be the CAUSE shared resources, interactive exercises and focused on broadening student awareness by stressing intersectionality.

In line with Merrimack’s growing commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, Director of Student Involvement Peter Rojas has worked with partners across campus to develop a network of diversity awareness training opportunities. These training and workshop events, from the inaugural Unity in Diversity Days in fall 2020 to the LGBTQ+ Safe Zone Training, aim to broaden student perspectives and build an intersectional awareness of systemic challenges.

Many training sessions are listed under the LinkedIn badge offerings in collaboration with the O’Brien Center for Career Development and are offered regularly to Merrimack students, faculty and staff. In early spring 2021, however, Rojas and his team of student leaders at Merrimack took steps to open dialogues in the broader community through a partnership with Central Catholic High School.

Rojas, a Central Catholic alumnus, first reconnected with the school in fall 2020 at an alumni event. Shortly after, he started working closely with Central’s Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Aliali Silverio Belkus. Through their conversations, what Rojas and Belkus originally planned as a three-day workshop for students at Central eventually spawned into a month-long series.

“We had a group of students who seemed really motivated to make changes at Central, so we thought we might as well make a huge workshop series,” Rojas says. “We started with our Diversity Awareness Training. We talk about fundamentals of communication, intersectionality, microaggression, implicit biases, power and privilege, allyship, activism and advocacy.”

In that first session, Rojas and his student leader, Merrimack Senior Samantha “Sam” Frey, created a safe space for students to explore complex and deeply personal social issues. For many of these students, it was the first time they had the opportunity to engage with one another and open up about their own experiences in their school community.

“Giving them the language to talk about these issues was my main goal,” Frey says. “I hear from so many people who say things like, ‘I don’t want to talk about this because I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to make anyone upset’… But if we don’t have the conversation, nothing’s going to get better. If you care about change, it might be difficult, but you have to have the conversations.”

The first workshop shared resources, interactive exercises and focused on broadening student awareness by stressing intersectionality. The session was equally focused on getting students to participate, share stories from their own lives and practice listening to one another. In the intimate group setting, students had the opportunity to voice and explore their own positionality. They also had the opportunity to hear from their peers and find community.

“The gist behind all of this was getting the students thinking about their own privileges and identities and also helping them think about intersectionalities,” Rojas says. “A lot of the conversation was based on race and ethnicity and that there are so many identities they may not think about.”

Central Catholic Junior Colleene Cabaria says the series was eye opening. At first, she admits to being a little skeptical of the program. Central’s DEI Director Belkus ultimately convinced her to go.

“Being a Black woman, I thought I didn’t need to have a class on diversity,” Cabaria says. “But, I did need it. I learned things I didn’t know. I got clarification on terms I thought meant one thing but meant another. I heard other peoples’ experiences and their struggles. They shared so many deep things and it makes me feel like I’m actually not alone in what I experience.”

Central Catholic Senior Osamuyimen “Uyi” Osayimwen also participated in the series after working with leadership on DEI efforts at Central for most of his four-year tenure at the school. Following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the upswell of the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020, Osayimwen says he and many of his peers were feeling discouraged, frustrated and burnt out.

When he heard about Be the CAUSE, he rallied his friends and encouraged peers to attend. As a senior, any change he can be a part of before graduation is well worth it, Osamuyimen says.

“I don’t think the majority of the conversations I’ve had in the past were fruitful or productive,” he says, referring especially to his white peers. “I think a big part was that some people never had to experience racism. I think the miscommunication and misunderstandings that happened weren’t because they were necessarily unempathetic, but because the education they had versus what I had was on a whole other level. You can’t see eye to eye unless you’re educated fully or equally.”

What the workshop offered was a place for mutual education and space where students could get on the same page not only about race and racism, but about sexism, classism, homophobia and how many of these marginalities intersect. “If Sam asks,” Osamuyimen says, “I know what intersectionality means now.”

Following the Diversity Awareness Training, Central Catholic students also completed the Safe Zone Training and were invited to Merrimack’s Spring 2021 Unity in Diversity Days on Wednesday, April 7, and Thursday, April 8. The group will end the series later this semester with a visit to Merrimack’s campus.

With a successful first run, organizers hope to continue to build this partnership with future workshop series and continued student engagement. Students of all grade levels participated this year, which bodes well for future involvement. Rojas says both his team and administrators at Central Catholic see the series as a great opportunity to build relationships and open meaningful conversations.

“The workshop felt like home,” Cabaria says. “It was really eye-opening and powerful.”

Learn More About Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Merrimack