The Union Ballroom was hushed as members of the Minority Student Achievement Network received their handouts entitled, “Guidelines for Dialogue.” The first guideline: confidentiality.

The 2014 MSAN Student Conference brought together 250 high school students from a host of districts across the country. The conference was designed to create a safe atmosphere for students to discuss issues of racism, as well as the “achievement gap” that has come to exist in many suburban high schools.

MSAN Executive Director Madeline Hafner said this gap is particularly prevalent in suburban areas because tend to foster the greatest contrasts in opportunity from student to student depending on their background.

The 15th annual conference was hosted by Farmington Public Schools, but since it began in 2000, the event has been held all over the country, including Wisconsin, New Jersey, North Carolina and Massachusetts. Hafner said student participation in the network brings greater student understanding of subjects such as social psychology, as well as strong action plans for combatting racism in schools.

The dialogue training was held among students in a very full Union Ballroom, with students sitting at round tables. The students were unafraid to share their thoughts, and there was a steady flow of student input coming through the speakers as each student spoke through the microphone. Roger Fisher, associate director of Intergroup Relations, spent time passionately leading the discussion, encouraging students to be leaders against racism in their own classrooms.

“There’s a difference between a rebellion and a revolution,” Fisher said, addressing the room. “A rebellion is just acting out. It’s throwing one real good organized fit. It’s having a tantrum. Revolution requires change. It requires strategy. It requires commitment, intelligence — all these other things. We have to decide, am I committed to just a good old-fashioned tear down the walls rebellion, or am I committed to a revolution?”

Walking out of the ballroom, Farmington High School junior Margaret Kohler expressed anxiety about missing a day of school. With a 4.0 GPA and a self-described privileged background, Kohler admits she is on the high end when it comes to achievement. Even so, she is dedicated to raising awareness about the disparities of achievement associated with race, and this was her third year in a row attending a conference of this type.

“I could name 20 people who never talk about this stuff,” Kohler said. “If we don’t do it no one else will.”

Kohler said she has seen an achievement gap at her school, and to combat it, students of different races need to interact more with one another.

“Farmington High School in our district has the biggest achievement gap, and I think that’s super connected to this whole diversity thing and race cliques,” Kohler said. “I think if students were to mesh more with students who aren’t like them, then you’d definitely see lessening of the achievement gap.”

This point came up again and again at the conference — greater integration between students of different races makes it easier to combat the stereotypes associated with race. Hafner said some students feel pressured by the “mythical” benchmarks for academic success that have been constructed for students of their particular race.

“I think that’s where that comes from, the myth that if you’re smart and you’re Black, you’re acting white, or the stereotype that certain groups of people aren’t intelligent,” she said. “I think some kids live into that expectation placed on them, and some work really hard to fight against it.”

Still, each student had individual experiences in their school and not all of them had witnessed or experienced directly racial issues.

Darryl Dunlap, a student at North Farmington High School, said he has not personally run into conflicts with peers or teachers, but that he has friends who have told him they feel held back by their race.

“I wouldn’t say my race has ever held me back; generally I would say all my teachers like me,” Dunlap said. “Some of my Asian friends may not be as smart as they’re made out to be, and they struggle sometimes too, even though people usually think they’re smart.”

Dunlap was on the volunteer committee at the conference, meaning he is one of the students trusted with helping to make sure everything runs smoothly. Last year, Dunlap attended the 2013 MSAN conference in Massachusetts. He said his experiences with the national conference have been inspiring.

“When I first went last year, I was kind of like, this is a chance for me to get out of school,” he said. “But then once you get into the topics of discussion, it’s an eye-opener. You actually see what is going on and how you can help change things.”

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