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Student Leaders Build Cross-cultural BRIDGEs

On the second floor of the Bachmann Collaboration Building, excited high school students shuffle across the room to stand beneath signs ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” The statements start simple, like “Flintridge Prep’s mac and cheese is overrated.” (Consensus seems to be that it is, in fact, accurately rated, though it has a few vocal defenders and at least one student finds it “too cheesy.”) From there, ice broken, the questions get progressively deeper, venturing into discussions about the mission of school leadership groups and the importance of diversity, belonging, and feeling seen. This is an open meeting of BRIDGE (Belonging, Respect, Inclusion, and Diversity, Grounded in Equity), the most recent addition to Flintridge Prep’s administratively supported student leadership organizations—one with a mission to further diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging through student leadership. The teenagers migrating across the room to share their thoughts are 9th and 10th graders interested in applying for membership for next year. The Foundations

Students in BRIDGE pose on bridge at school

The Foundations

BRIDGE was inspired by the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), hosted annually by the National Association of Independent Schools as a student counterpart to the faculty- and staff-focused National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference.

“Prep definitely needs to experience this, even if you don’t get to go to the conference,” says Gya Rodríguez ‘23, 2022-23 BRIDGE co-president, noting the conference’s moving discussions and hands-on activities. “We felt heard; we felt comfortable speaking in that space. It’s hard to talk about diversity in a school, and having that open safe space to do so motivated us to bring that to Prep.”

“I would take six students to this conference, and those six students would have a transformative experience. I knew it could be more than that. I knew we could do more with that,” says Assistant Head for Student Life Barrett Jamison.

Recognizing a game-changing potential to fill a very important community need for sustained, meaningful, and inclusive activities and conversations, the administration’s Student Life Committee, which includes Jamison, Head of School Vanessa Walker-Oakes, and others, invited the group to join Athletic Council on Leadership, Flintridge Leadership Initiative, Student Community Action Council, and Student Senate as one of the admin-supported student leadership organizations.

“There is so much alignment between what the students experience at SDLC and Flintridge Prep’s mission to create a purposeful, diverse, and nurturing community,” notes Walker-Oakes. “It felt natural that the school offer strategic support and partner with our students to create a leadership group that would express our commitment to inclusion and belonging.”

BRIDGE hosts an event

Connecting the Community

BRIDGE is a fitting metaphor for the group’s emerging role in the community. It is a bridge between SDLC and the student body, between the different identity-based clubs on campus, and between the students and the administration. In merely a year since the group’s founding, BRIDGE has established itself as an incredible positive force on campus.

“BRIDGE as a concept fits perfectly with the idea of Prep as a crossroads for open dialogue and diverse thought and ideas, which we think is so important to a healthy and thriving community. The fact that this network of connection is school-supported but student-driven makes it that much more powerful,” says Walker-Oakes.

The backing from school leadership provides BRIDGE with opportunities to take action and make change that other clubs might not be able to access. One ambitious project involved integrating hands-on workshops and activities the students learned at SDLC into Flintridge Prep’s advisory program. Everyone in BRIDGE took part in leading activities in advisory meetings so all Prep students from 7th to 12th grade could benefit from them.

“The first time was nerve-racking. How were students going to take this?” remembers Gya. “But seeing how it went, people actually really enjoyed it!”

The activities include an identity spectrum exercise similar to the one from the open meeting. Another asked participants to fill out “identity molecules” that describe which parts of their identity are core to their experience and which are present but less important.

Both activities led to eyeopening conversations about personal and cultural identity that would otherwise not have been possible. “It got 7th graders and 12th graders all talking about the same thing and got everybody comfortable with talking about themselves, their identities, and their opinions,” says Nadya LaMarr ‘23, the other BRIDGE co-president.

“We care about the student body, and we do what we do because we want you to flourish,” says Halia Benn ‘24, one of BRIDGE’s co-presidents for the upcoming 2023-24 school year. “This group is especially here to help us feel grounded in ourselves, connect us to our roots, and help us be more mindful and appreciate our cultures, our origins, and us as people.”

Nico Stanton ‘24, a member of BRIDGE and the president of Prep’s Latino Club, is proud of what the group has accomplished working with the school’s various identity-based clubs. “Before BRIDGE, the identity clubs were on their own and secluded. BRIDGE is the bridge not just between the clubs, but from those identity clubs to other people outside,” he says. Nico also appreciates the Friendsgiving and Seasonal Holiday events BRIDGE facilitated this year. By inviting identity clubs to share their cultures with the student body in a large group event, clubs which otherwise may not have received much notice have received the signal boost they need.

​   ​Halia Benn ‘24 (left) and Cameron Paxton ‘24 (right) will be copresidents of BRIDGE this year.

Halia Benn ‘24 (left) and Cameron Paxton ‘24 (right) will be copresidents of BRIDGE this year.

Beyond these campus-wide projects, BRIDGE uses its status as an admin-backed student leadership organization to empower students to realize their visions for projects related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB).

Cameron Paxton ‘24, BRIDGE’s other co-president for 2023-24, shares how after several years without a central organization to go through, BRIDGE helped him fulfill his dream of organizing the Community Orchestra to perform a song by a Black composer. With BRIDGE’s backing, he brought together the Community Orchestra and the Black Student Union to arrange and record a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamund Johnson—and to reprise that performance in front of a live audience at the Spring Music Concert.

These examples represent only a small sample of BRIDGE’s accomplishments. The group also runs a social media account promoting cultural awareness throughout the year, publishes a newsletter covering a broad range of DEIB topics, hosts guest speakers, and collaborates with local schools to discuss how they have implemented DEIB work on their campuses.

“Working with the students in BRIDGE this year has been so inspiring,” says Maddie Martin, one of BRIDGE’s faculty advisors. “They care so much about making Prep a place where everyone feels like they belong, and they are willing to work to make that happen.”

“The simple way of connecting with each other in the community is what stands out to me the most,” adds Kiara Best, BRIDGE’s other faculty advisor, sharing her appreciation for the earnest enthusiasm the group’s members have shown for spreading the word about BRIDGE. “The love that we get speaks for itself.”

“We care about the student body, and we do what we do because we want you to flourish. This group is especially here to help us feel grounded in ourselves, connect us to our roots, and help us be more mindful and appreciate our cultures, our origins, and us as people.” — Halia Benn ‘24

Crossing into the Future

Energized by a successful first year, the student leaders of BRIDGE aspire to grow the organization’s proven work, expand its scope, and ensure stability for the future.

Members of BRIDGE pose for a photo

“Everyone leading up to now has been building this foundation,” says Halia. “I want to contribute to that foundation so that the grades after us can do even more largescale projects.”

Part of ensuring BRIDGE’s future is a very intentionally designed membership process. Any 9th and 10th grade students who wish to further the group’s mission of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging can apply for a position for the following year. The students whose applications are chosen will attend SDLC and bring back what they learn to share with BRIDGE and the Student Life Committee. The process ensures that the newest members get to participate in the transformative experience of SDLC early in their careers and primes them to take on leadership roles in BRIDGE in 11th and 12th grade.

“I feel like it’s going to keep changing,” reflects Gya, contemplating BRIDGE’s future now that she is graduating. “We were here to start that little spark, and we’re excited to see what our members are going to do after us because we know BRIDGE is going to be in good hands.” 

Follow @fpbridge on Instagram and check out its past newsletters at /BRIDGEnewsletter.