This account was created through an interview with Steve Davis, Director of Diversity and Community Relations at Pomfret School, Connecticut, with added comments from Rachel Godfrey (14IL) and K.C. O’Hara (14IL).
Steve, tell us what you witnessed. K.C. and Rachel were able to lead the school in a powerful response to an incident with sexist and racists texts that targeted students and faculty. KC showed a Power Point that portrayed students with racist and sexist slurs they had been called. They also took some of the Yik Yak comments and magnified them and put them on a big screen. Someone behind the curtain read them out loud. One of the texts read: “17 new black students” to which a reply was: “yes, 17 too many.” Another comment called “dibs” on a young woman for a dance. That girl stood up and said, “First of all you spelled my name wrong and second there’s no dibs on a person,” and walked up on stage. Another text said, “Don’t look to get an award if you’re not Asian.” A young Asian woman stood up and said, “I’m proud of my awards but I also work for them,” and joined them on stage. A teacher stood up and said, “Yes, I’m a teacher but I’m also a mother, a wife and I’m not a coward,” then made her way to the stage.
Rachel came out and read a statement, ending with “I challenge you all stand up for what’s right. Be a leader for good. . . Reflection is needed. Effort is needed. Honesty, with each other, and with ourselves, is needed. Call out your friends when they’re rude. Have uncomfortable conversations. Embrace change. It starts with the small things, but it makes a great big difference. I cannot change Pomfret alone, no matter how hard I try. It takes our community to make Pomfret the best it can be.”
Silently eighty youth leaders came up on stage. It was so powerful. We were saying who we are as a community and there was a standing ovation. And, five or six kids turned themselves in. I was proud because the young people who took lead were Rachel and K.C. The Encampment empowered both of them.
The Yik Yak incident was an impactful experience for Rachel. She knew that there were lots of different people at Pomfret with lots of different opinions about things. She knew that there were people out there who had these beliefs but she had not really run into them and had conversations – especially about gender equality. Rachel commented, “When the planning was going into the programming, I was scared. Not scared to talk to my peers, but scared that the place I had called home for so long seemed to be becoming unfamiliar territory to me. But the whole idea and planning was student-driven, and getting to be the head of that, and working with KC, made me remember why I loved my school in the first place. I also became aware of how pertinent teamwork was to success; without the individuals that stepped forward to help us, we would’ve truly struggled. We had to trust each other, and when we finally did, the magic happened. We were able to open up the floor for uncomfortable conversations at school, and learned how to address social obstacles.“
When K.C. was asked about his experience, he replied, “The Encampment inspired me to create positive change in my community and take initiative using the leadership skills and the knowledge I gained at the Encampment. I would not have been able to be a catalyst for such change in my school community if it weren’t for the confidence I gained this summer. To get the community to be willing and able to have difficult conversations about race, gender, and sexual orientation, I used the social skills from the Encampment to draw on for strength and information. Without the Encampment I could have never made such an impact in my school community.
Steve, can you tell us some backstory? The incident started with Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app that can be used for gossip and it occurred at the beginning of the school year taking us by surprise. The young people arrived on Saturday and we had a convocation and chapel service on Sunday welcoming everyone back. Our head of school made a powerful statement about ethics, specifically, “What do you do when no one’s looking?” The very next day sexist and racist texts appeared on Yik Yak targeting students and teachers at Pomfret.
Pomfret School prides itself on fostering a sense of community and diversity. And even though we understand no one is perfect, it was a wake-up call to realize this sort of thing was going on below the surface. We knew that who we are was going to be determined in the next 48 hours. The administration brought faculty and student leaders together to decide what to do. An all-school assembly was called several days later. The head of school opened the assembly likening the incidents to terrorism—a modern version of the Klu Klux Klan where people under the cloak of anonymity threaten people. He told us, “That’s not going to happen here. Together we are going to find the people who did this and make sure it does not happen again. He had the phone numbers that were tied to the comments and had already been in touch with the company and the state police to release information.
The assembly set the tone for the whole school. It forced us to be our best selves. To look at what us ugly and to admit we are not the perfect community that we would like to be. The fact that these things were being texted (and said) being exposed validated a lot of students and opened the eyes of those who were unaware of this undercurrent. This was a call to arms led by Rachel challenging, “Stand up for what’s right.” They received a standing ovation and that sent a big message. As a consequence the school is monitoring Yik Yak and we all have a goal: How can we treat each other better?