EDISON, NJ -- The Wardlaw+Hartridge School addressed an emerging hot topic – Inclusive Communities: LGBTQ+ and Identity – at its biennial Upper School symposium on Wednesday, March 13. 

As stated in the symposium brochure: It is important for a school that places “community” as one of its six core values to acknowledge and support the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth in our community. We strive to create a school environment that is safe and welcoming for every member. Those who feel safe, supported, and accepted by their families and community report higher levels of happiness than those who do not. With this symposium, we aim to educate ourselves and listen to one another in order to better live out our core values by supporting all our community members.

The all-day event began with a keynote panel discussion in the Berry Performing Arts Center. Students and faculty listened to perspectives offered by a panel moderated by Robt Seda-Schreiber, Chief Activist of the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice. Lindsay Jeffers, Interim Assistant Director of Programming at the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities at Rutgers University, was joined by LGBTQ activists and advocates River Mariman, Pat Hurley and Pauline Nijander on the panel. Students asked questions and exchanged ideas during the first hour of the program.

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“Today's symposium gave our W+H community an opportunity to learn more about gender diversity and how we can become more mindful of our biases, stereotypes and social conditioning,” said Stephanie Cohen, Upper School English teacher and Symposium Director. “Our school values a supportive community and one way we can become more supportive is to learn to respect and care for the many identities that walk our hallways.”

Students participated in interactive small group activities with their peers and faculty members in classrooms. Breakout sessions followed a short break and included a variety of interesting topics: LGBTQ visibility: Positive Representation in Young Adult Fiction, Media and Pop Culture, Rights & Responsibilities as a Young Adult, “My House is Better Than Your House,” Building and Accepting Community: Asian American Family Acceptance, Building Inclusive Communities, Keeping Students Safe, Unions, Social Justice and the 99%, LGBTQ+ Historical Icons, Imperfect Alliances: Collaborative Resistance, Mind, Body and Sport: Harassment and Discrimination, Faithful Welcoming of LGBTQIA Youth, What Does NJ Law Say About LGBTQ Rights? and Two Generations of Activists: Looking Back & Looking Forward.

“The symposium’s events were effective in educating our student body because the lecturers sought to inform through interaction and engagement,” Matangi Melpakkam of Piscataway said. “This made the day’s workshops interesting as everyone was included in the discussions and could approach each topic with their own unique perspective. During the panel and initial session, I really appreciated the open mindedness with which our community approached the topic of “LGBTQ and Inclusivity of Identity”. I learned that when we all put our best foot forward, we can really come together and connect with each other with courage and honesty. Hopefully, we all left with something new to think about.”

The day concluded with an LGBTQ Film Festival in which students selected one of four movies to watch: Love Simon, Rent or episodes of Black Mirror or One Day at a Time. Six Community Norms were identified throughout the day: Be present, Embrace the unfamiliar, Navigate your internal experience, Allow for multiple truths, Treat all stories as precious, Leave no waste.

“Today was a day of acknowledgement and realization,” Stan DeLaurentiis of Plainfield said. “Although I was cognizant of many of the topics spoken about today, the discussion and dedication to it today opened my eyes further. Having actually seen and been able to speak with people who are LGBTQIA+, who have struggled with acceptance, gave the topic a greater urgency and weight than it has before for me.”

Caption: William Yin and Logan D'Amore of Scotch Plains, Joe Bacalhau of Woodbridge, Andrew Bao of Edison, Mayah Nissim of Scotch Plains, Jason Kisare of Bridgewater, Nyela Liverpool of Plainfield, Krishna Patel of Edison and Laura Chen of Fords participate in a group activity during the symposium.