The critical work of developing student literacy and competence around the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) has expanded significantly with this year’s introduction of the Middle School JEDI program. (JEDI is a remix of the acronym DEIJ to lead with justice, and a fun tip of the hat to a famous fictional force fighting for good.) Now, once a schedule rotation, all 7th and 8th grade students gather in the Performing Arts Center for the JEDI Alliance assembly, where DEIJ concepts are broken down with guidance from Dean of Lower and Middle School Student Voices Tamara Jaffe ’08.
Overall, the program is designed to help students understand identity and the concepts of being a force for putting things right—being an upstander—in the pursuit of justice and equity. Students are also introduced to facts regarding race and identity which they can dissect and draw understanding from. To date, Jaffe has introduced the topics of courageous conversations (discussing protocols to have difficult conversations) and family heritage focusing on intergenerational experiences.
According to Lower & Middle School Director Dr. Zanita Kelly, what started out years ago as informal conversations with students has been built into a more structured, formalized program for students with the hiring of Jaffe and Director of Equity Ian Tatum. “With the JEDI program, which started last year as a club that was very popular, students are taught how to safely engage in difficult conversations so that they aren’t feeling shamed, embarrassed, or upset.”
“Our students are telling us that they need these conversations,” Dr. Kelly explained. “Social media has opened up the world to students whether they are prepared for it or not, and the DEIJ programming allows students both space and grace to put the tools they are learning to practice with low stakes. They are curious, and this is their sandbox.”
JEDI assemblies focus on topics that will make it easier for students to thrive within their communities. For example, the family heritage assembly was titled “Who Defines You?,” in which students learned about how family structures go beyond the nuclear definition and the myriad of ways in which a family can be identified. They were also introduced to the concept of a circle of care, which allows them to delve into the intersection of family and those who care for them.
Skills developed in the JEDI program are used in the Middle School affinity groups, which are spaces for students of shared cultural, racial, ethnic, or other backgrounds to meet, support one another, and discuss various topics. In the groups, students can have serious conversations in a healthy and productive manner. The student affinity groups will also lead their own JEDI assemblies later in the year on topics they feel are important, Jaffe said.
“According to research, children are aware of identities and differences at a very young age, and affinity groups help to lessen the negative impacts of isolation related to their identity groups,” said Tatum. “Affinities provide space for students to share who they are and the experiences specific to their identities, which helps to promote greater inclusion in the community.”
The JEDI program and affinity spaces are not graded, but they are an important co-curricular part of the Middle School education at Westridge, building on the Lower School Council program. Dr. Kelly has added DEIJ topics to Council using the developmental framework appropriate for kids ages 9 to 11.
For example, identity was discussed during the initial Council meetings. At their age, students talk about identity to understand who they are, who their family is, what their values are, and friendship building. In Middle School, students begin discussing identity in-depth around their culture, sexuality, and other realms in their Human Development classes, JEDI, and affinity spaces.
“In Middle School, in particular, it’s very difficult to talk about identity because you’re trying to figure out your identity and anything that might possibly ‘other’ you from the group usually does not get discussed,” Jaffe said. By explaining the ‘why’ behind more serious topics, she gets more buy-in and participation from students. While these topics are difficult and sometimes jarring, she contends that there is no better way to grow into someone who is compassionate and respectful than through learning about one’s identity and the identity of those around them.
Jaffe recognizes that some lessons may take some time to grasp, but with that said: “I’ve found that Westridge students are really some of the most capable people that I’ve ever met, and that really becomes apparent as they get older and go out and change the world,” she concluded.