Artwork by Ella Benitone
MoSAic poised to add new affinity groups after its first year at St. Mary’s.
The Black Student Association and Gender Sexuality Alliance were the first two affinity groups to organize when MoSAic was established at St. Mary’s last year. Since then, other groups of students have explored creating additional affinity groups based on religion — Jewish and Muslim students — and ethnicity — Asian, Hispanic and biracial students. These groups have not been officially established yet due to the nature of MoSAic as a student-driven organization.
MoSAic has been driven by students from the beginning. It was created after students expressed a need and desire for affinity-based groups of support for students of minority identities at St. Mary’s, thus it is still very responsive to and dependent on student involvement. The pathway for creating new affinity groups varies for each group of students.
Reverend Bush (‘92), one of the sponsors of MoSAic, discussed the differences in how groups of minority students have organized. She explained, “Last year even though there wasn’t a Jewish affinity group that was meeting, after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, several Jewish students organized themselves into a fireside chat … which is exactly what an affinity group would have done even though they weren’t meeting regularly.”
Bush describes that this is exactly one of the two purposes of an affinity group: providing opportunities for engaging and informing the larger community. The other is offering inward support for a minority group.
However, no Jewish affinity group began to meet regularly after that fireside chat.
Bush contrasts this example with a group of students who approached her with the idea for an Asian student affinity group, but the organizational structure did not emerge from that conversation.
Though it produced a thoughtful conversation about identity, Bush explains that with regard to the failure of the launch, “It takes a lot to get something like that off the ground.” She mentioned finding a group of committed students, creating leadership and an organizational structure, organizing events and finding sponsors as tasks to be done in creating a new affinity group.
This year, in hopes of engaging students with possible new groups within MoSAic, Mrs. Pitts surveyed students about what groups they would like to see and be apart of. MoSAic sponsors Bush and Mrs. Parker (‘83) are currently in the process of following up on those survey results.
Bush also emphasized the opportunities MoSAic has provided and will continue to provide for students who do not identify with the affinity groups within MoSAic. “Anyone can be a part of the MoSAic superstructure and can attend fireside chats [and other open events] provided by affinity groups,” she affirmed. “Those are the places for allies and any interested folks who may not want to claim ‘ally’ but want to learn more.”
As more small identity-based groups emerge, Bush stresses the positive results of MoSAic’s existence thus far. “The word I find myself using when I tell people about it is joy,” she said.
“I think it gives our community better ways to be the St. Mary’s we say we are,” Bush said, summing up the response to MoSAic one year in.
Dr. Steakley agreed, “I feel like people who know us [St. Mary’s] are excited that we are looking for ways to support students who have not felt they have been supported here in the past.”
Steakley articulated previous concerns also mentioned by Bush about the possible divisiveness of creating small exclusive groups within a relatively small student body. However, she said concerns over disaffection and disunity have proven unfounded so far.
Steakley spoke passionately about opportunities she’s had for learning how better to support minority students like learning from other schools with Minority Student Associations and conferences like Tearing Down the Walls, including especially the new focus of Mrs. Jenkins, a diversity and inclusion specialist. Jenkins is solely focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at St. Mary’s. She assumed this new role after she went to the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and wanted to bring back that DEI work to the St. Mary’s community.
Jenkins stressed that St. Mary’s has been on the forefront of DEI from the very beginning, citing its legacy as the first independent school to integrate in Memphis.
Jenkins said DEI work depends on collaboration: “I have to connect what different people are thinking.” She focuses on education, particularly one-on-one with teachers. She explained, “This is individualized work ... that’s how change happens.” She even created an online PowerSchool collection of DEI resources for teachers to access at their own pace and whenever the need arises. “I want to give everyone time and space to come into their own awakening about these issues,” she explained.
Jenkins also strives to “increase the representation of diverse faculty on campus.” And as the school becomes more diverse, she stressed the equal importance of inclusion: making everyone feel a part of the St. Mary’s community, a “sense of belonging.”
“DEI concepts are for everyone, and I want to work with all students, whether they belong to a minority or not,” she asserted.
Steakley concurred, “What we’ve also learned is that [better supporting minority students] is not to the detriment of supporting students who are in the majority.”
Steakley said that MoSAic plays a vital role in the growth and education of the St. Mary’s community on issues of diversity and inclusion. One of her aspirations in the creation of MoSAic was that it would serve as a liaison between minority students and the administration so that the administration could learn how to support them better; she cited the hypothetical example of MoSAic leadership coming to her to discuss concerns over a class project being culturally insensitive. That goal, she says, has been met so far.
“I’m really, really proud to know that we’re having those conversations,” Steakley said. “I would love for our alums, people who have been away from St. Mary’s for 20 years or anyone in the community — whether that’s a parent — who cares about St. Mary’s and has a question about this to come see what we’re doing, come walk the halls ... I think people would be very proud of the work we’re doing here. I know I am.”
As to MoSAic’s place in St. Mary’s culture, Steakley said, “That’s who we are. St. Mary’s is a school that cares about the kids — I think that’s more true today than it’s ever been.”
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