The metaphorical meanings of a bridge are manifold: It can describe connections between people, ideas, cultures, concepts, or countries. No wonder it seemed like the perfect new name for the student group formerly known as RICA, whose goal—according to its new mission statement—is to provide “a shared space where a diverse community of student voices discusses topics relevant to identity, inclusivity, equity, and social and environmental justice.”
Besides, says BRIDGE co-leader Rayha McPherson ’20, “As much as I loved the name and history of RICA, nobody knew what it stood for. We wanted a new name that would be easier to remember, and one in which the acronym had meaning itself.” BRIDGE stands for Building Real Intercultural Dialogue (to) Generate Engagement.
Adds Talia Davis ’21, another BRIDGE leader, “In changing the name to BRIDGE, I think we are deepening our focus on bringing the growth and change created within RICA’s club members to our greater school community.”
The new mission statement emphasizes that the club is open to all students, whatever their background or views. English teacher Venise Adjibodou, who serves as one of the group’s faculty advisors, says, “Several popular misperceptions about the club’s purpose spurred the need for a clearer mission statement. The students wanted the campus community to know BRIDGE is a discussion space where everyone is welcome.”
BRIDGE, say its leaders, is not just for students who identify as minority members. “The new name was an attempt to make it clear that we encourage all students of all backgrounds and identities to participate in these conversations. You don’t have to be a minority to care about minority injustices,” says McPherson.
That reach also extends to faculty and staff, as was clear at a recent BRIDGE meeting open to adult community members (the group meets weekly; faculty and staff will be invited once a month). The meeting filled Campus Center 125-126 to capacity, with students and faculty eager to hear and learn from one another.
Davis spoke first, acknowledging the potentially awkward “power dynamics” in the room and reassuring participants that this was a safe place in which to voice difficult truths. “We don’t shame anyone for saying what’s on their mind,” she said. “And we don’t raise our hands to speak—because it’s not a class.”
The student leaders first led the group in an interactive “step in” activity. As the leaders read various prompts, the participants stood in a circle, stepping in when a prompt was applicable. The questions—and the responses—were revelatory: Who travels an hour or more to come to Rivers? Who lives 20 minutes away or less? Do you think about race and racial identity daily? Did you attend a public university or college, or a private one? Do you feel included in the rituals and traditions of Rivers? Do you feel safe expressing yourself at Rivers? No question prompted a unanimous response.
Next came a “fishbowl” conversation, with the prompts as a jumping-off point. The students first convened in the center of the room while the staff and faculty listened. Students spoke of the instinct to mask themselves or rein themselves in, and of the difficulty and risk in revealing one’s true self. Adebiyi Oyaronbi ’21, the third student leader of BRIDGE, noted the discomfort of sometimes being the only person of color in a classroom and the pressure to act as a spokesperson for his race. And several female students expressed confusion and anger about recent changes to the dress code, which, they said, sent a negative message to girls about the “distraction” posed by their bodies and clothing choices.
Then it was the faculty’s turn to enter the fishbowl. As students listened, faculty members tackled some of the hard questions raised by BRIDGE: the challenges for teachers of color, who also feel the burden of continually serving as spokespersons and standard-bearers; the privilege—acknowledged and unacknowledged—held by white teachers; the “othering” of those who, regardless of their race, don’t come from a New England prep school background.
Difficult at times, the conversation was also greeted as productive and important. Director of service learning Kit Cunningham, one of the attendees, later said it was one of the most valuable student-run events she’s attended at Rivers.
The student leaders have several initiatives in the works for the upcoming year, ranging from creating programming for MLK Day and the Day of Consideration to a maintaining a board outside the diversity office, sharing current events and relevant holidays. They hope to increase student participation in the organization and to hear from a wider range of voices at the weekly meetings.
But the group’s impact is making itself felt. English teacher Katie Henderson, who, along with Adjibodou, serves as a faculty advisor to BRIDGE, says, “These are students who want to make Rivers more inclusive, and they aren’t just sitting back and hoping it comes to pass.” Adjibodou adds, “I’m grateful for the student leaders and participants in BRIDGE. They are changemakers.”