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YouBelong Inspires Students to Make Change

On Friday, February 19, 450 students in Grade 8 - 12 from Canadian and international independent schools (as well as the Grade 6 BSS classes) came together virtually to collaborate, share, and cultivate a sense of belonging at the first YouBelong Student Diversity Leadership Summit.
The idea of hosting a student summit came into being after BSS sent its first delegation of students to the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference in December 2019. Inspired by the opportunity to meet other students and share diverse experiences and perspectives, Ella N, Jo H, Emmy V, Xin Ran Z, Naila K and Mofe B began working with the 2019-20 Community Voices Prefects Stephanie C and Sarah C to begin planning their own summit at BSS, called YouBelong.

Unfortunately, as the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up, YouBelong was postponed along with numerous other in-person events. This year, the YouBelong Executive Council was formed, consisting of Emmy, Xin Ran, Naila and Mofe, plus new members Danni F, Milena P, Lauren P, Jac A, Abbie P and Sophia P. The new Community Voices Prefects Elise C and Ari K also offered their support. 

Last Friday, their hard work culminated in the first independent school DEIB summit of its kind - entirely student-organized and led. The goal was to foster discussions about identity and allyship, strengthen inter-school relationships and collaborations, and inspire students to take action to address diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in their own schools.

Kicking things off was an inspiring keynote address and Q&A with Sandy Hudson, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada and the Black Legal Action Centre. In addition to the conference participants, Grade 7 students and staff and faculty from BSS also attended. 

Sandy’s talk was a powerful reminder of our collective responsibility to work for justice in our communities. She shared how her upbringing in Toronto as a young Black woman shaped her experiences and understanding of racism and sexism; her motivation for becoming involved in activism and starting the Canadian chapter of BLM and the Black Legal Action Centre; and her advice for students who wish to become effective allies and activists.

During the Q&A portion, Sandy addressed student questions about managing burnout and harassment resulting from activism, how to work within systems of oppression to bring about change, effective team-building and collaboration, and much more.  Questions came from Bermuda, Australia, and all across Canada. According to one participant, “The keynote speaker was amazing! Having a speaker who is from Toronto who talked about their own experience, their challenges, successes and learning was really meaningful.” Another student commented, “Hearing Sandy speak made me realize that in order for things to change, it will take time. But if we start taking initiative now, we will have the change we deserve across all schools and within our own.”

In addition to the keynote address, students participated in workshops designed and facilitated by fellow students, on topics such as microaggressions, allyship, white privilege, code-switching, and land acknowledgement and indigenous solidarity. They also had the opportunity to connect in affinity and regional groups. “As I reflect upon today’s conference, I sense there is so much injustice in this world,” said one participant. “After the affinity groups, where I had chosen [to participate in] the Person of Colour group, I felt validated. It was very helpful to understand and raise awareness of the perspectives of different ethnicities and racial groups. It empowered me to think about the impact of even a small number of people gathering to discuss these issues.”

“Being a part of You Belong gave me the chance to wholly experience being part of a change that is so much bigger than me,” said Emmy Voges, chair of the YouBelong Executive Council and a delegate at the 2019 Student Diversity Leadership Conference. “I felt more connected to my peers than ever, and extremely hopeful for the future as a result. I truly believe anyone who attended witnessed a significant event in the future of DEIB work.


Student Reflections

"As I reflect upon today's conference, I sense there is so much injustice in this world. After the affinity groups, where I had chosen [to participate in] the Person of Colour group, I felt validated. It was very helpful to understand and raise awareness of the perspectives of different ethnicities and racial groups. It empowered me to think about the impact of even a small number of people gathering to discuss these issues." -Sacred Heart School, Quebec

"The Allyship vs. Saviourism workshop made me sit down and look at some things that I've done with good intentions that are actually saviourism. After this reflection, I will consider to be mindful of what I'm speaking about and why. Do I care about this or am I speaking about this because other people are? Do I have enough knowledge about this topic to be able to really speak out about this issue? If not, what can I do about it?" -The York School, Toronto

"Today I realized that I am not alone. A lot of frustration, crying and reminiscing was shown during my workshops. And it was very well needed to tell our stories and to show our emotions in regards to the frustrations we feel at our schools. Hearing the organizers and how they put these feelings into words really helped me and everyone to realize that our emotions are valid." -Havergal College, Toronto

"Being in a minority group myself even though I am a white male (I have a physical disability) it made me feel less alone. Inclusion is difficult to advocate for sometimes without people feeling sorry for you. I learned that continuing to advocate is imperative and that there are people like me and together our voices can lead to change." -Rundle College, Alberta

"I realized that others were going through the same thing as me and that I wasn’t alone. I felt more comfortable with who I am as a person as I realized that there were others feeling the same. In the affinity groups, I was able to quickly connect with others through our experiences which helped me reflect on myself and the experiences I have had. This was something completely new for me and I felt really comfortable sharing my experiences, ideas and opinions with others." -St. Margaret’s School, British Columbia

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