Roaring Fork High School tries to make space for students to have conversations about their experiences with racism, inequity |

Roaring Fork High School tries to make space for students to have conversations about their experiences with racism, inequity

Social divides within the valley prompt ideas on how to unite individuals of different backgrounds

Senior Vanessa Leon-Gamez at Roaring Fork High School identifies as Latinx and said throughout her whole life growing up in the valley she has seen separation in the community.

“Like for example, town events or First Fridays or whatever it might be…There’s a definite divide between white people and everybody else. And that’s how it’s been for a long time,” Leon-Gamez said.

As part of the effort to increase equity and conversation around social justice in its schools, Roaring Fork School District partnered with the Aspen Institute to provide a leadership seminar for students at RFHS. There are 10 other students in addition to Leon-Gamez who meet once a week after regular school hours to share experiences and become better listeners when it comes to the discussion of challenging topics.

“Every class we read a text and there will be thought-provoking questions or we can talk about our experiences or we can talk about the text, and it’s pretty broad. The first one was about racism and we talked about what our thoughts are and our experiences and how it relates to the town and the school, and how can we change our communities, how can we enact real change,” Leon-Gamez said.

Allyson and Todd Breyfogle are a married couple who work for the Aspen Institute. Todd is the managing director of the executive leadership seminars, and designed the curriculum currently being taught to students at RFHS. Allyson is the moderator for the conversations between students that Leon-Gamez described.

“What we’re really trying to create is a space of belonging, cultural belonging…The goal here is not so much to walk away with specific answers, it’s really about exploring different kinds of tensions,” Allyson Breyfogle said.

RFHS teachers Matt Wells and Carmen Mccracken are also sitting in on these sessions, but won’t take the lead with students until the last two weeks. Wells said after a month of discussing these topics they want to give the students a chance to make tangible plans about how they can share what they’ve learned throughout the school.

“We don’t really know what the format is going to be because we’re doing it as we go. We’re kind of letting that develop, but essentially to get the kids to make policy proposals and suggestions for school-level, maybe it’s a broader district level, what do they (see) from their eyes and experiences, and what do they want to see happen. What do they want to see changed? What ideas do they have around these issues of equity and justice in our schools, and that can be anything. We don’t even know where it’s going to lead and that’s kind of cool,” Wells said.

Leon-Gamez said the lack of integration between students throughout her education wasn’t enforced by anyone, just how her classmates tended to interact. This division is obvious to her, but she also said at this point it is what she’s used to as far as social interactions in the valley go. She also said she was not an exception to the norm and that her closest friends also are usually from a hispanic background.

“Like my entire life I’ve been around people who look like me and talk like me, and I can guarantee you that people who identify as white have been around white people and have friends who are white and it’s never been that much of integration and being together. I don’t know if that’s because we’re just more comfortable with people who are like us or if we were never encouraged to unite. It’s definitely a problem,” Leon-Gamez said.

Todd said his intent behind the seminar’s design is to focus on anti-racism and allow the students to develop the ability to practice empathy and make space for experiences of others that they may not share.

“So much of our educational system…is really about skills. You can have all the skills in the world but if you don’t have the moral judgement to understand where you’re going and how you’re using those skills, then the skills themselves aren’t especially valuable. In fact they can be really destructive. This exercise in moral reasoning, the habits of conversation, the ability to listen…those are skills. They may be soft skills but they’re soft skills for a hard world,” Todd Breyfogle said.

The seminar is six weeks long and while it only involves a small group of students at RFHS, Wells said once this group finishes the curriculum it will provide a jumping off point for how the district can expand the reach of this kind of program even further.

“I hope…that the schools seriously listen or the district seriously considers whatever these ideas (the kids come up with) are. Then, yeah I hope we can do that and I hope we can take this and build it much more broadly…I can see this down the road…why not have middle schools do a version of this? It could be something you could model, even for elementary I suppose. That would be a long-term goal for this.”


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