May 21, 2019

GSA at 30: Advocacy, Education, and Community

Campus events honored anniversary of the GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) and Andover’s commitment to human rights
by Jenny Barker

“Returning to visit the Tang Institute and also celebrate the GSA’s 30th anniversary filled me with pride to realize that I am part of a community that continuously empowers youth to live authentically and flourish,” said Bernell Downer, ‘96, a graduate student at the Klingenstein Center for Private School Leadership at Columbia University. “Now an educator, I was inspired and grateful to engage with teacher leaders at Andover who strive to design a curriculum responsive to pressing issues like social justice and climate change and to curate a sense of belonging that students can emulate to build their own inclusive communities wherever they go.”

Downer returned to campus recently, from April 12 to 14, 2019, for a medley of weekend activities at Phillips Academy Andover to celebrate the milestone anniversary of the GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance) and the school community’s “history of advocacy, education, and community building around the human rights of LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff.” The three days of events were hosted by the GSA and the Head of School’s Office, in collaboration with the Tang Institute at Andover. The Institute is currently focused on enriching five areas of teaching and learning at Andover, including equity and inclusion. Tang Fellow Marisela Ramos is working on a related project, “The Rainbow at PA,” which seeks to increase visibility for LGBTQ identities on campus.

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Connecting Educators and Partners

An exciting aspect of the weekend was the number of participants and collaborators, from on and off campus, who came together to share their work and join in thought-provoking conversations. A number of students and staff members from the Klingenstein Center attended the conference. They came with a shared interest in exploring with PA how LGBTQ issues impact pedagogy in the classroom and in institutional practice. The Tang Institute’s Currie Family Director, Andrew Housiaux, expressed interest in deepening the partnership between Klingenstein and the Institute, in areas such as teacher training and instructional support.

“The Tang Institute exists to support one of Andover’s deepest aims: being a private school with a public purpose. One of our central commitments is to equity and inclusion, and it was an honor to support the visit of such reflective educators,” said Housiaux. “Under the direction of Nicole Furlonge, they are thinking about school leadership and diversity in compelling new ways, and their questions and ideas energized the many faculty here who they conversed with. Just as important, as these graduate students head off to various schools this fall, we will have a more robust network of educators who share our commitment to inclusive learning environments that we can draw upon.”

The weekend also offered an opportunity to connect these graduate students with research undertaken by Tang Fellow Kurt Prescott. He spoke about his work in the classroom during a joint presentation with Lauren R. Kerby, education specialist of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, introducing attendees to the topic “Decolonizing Religious Studies: Making Space for Queer Voices.” Prescott’s part of the presentation drew upon his experience as a 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and his work with the Tang Institute.

In the past year, Prescott started teaching a new elective titled “Global Islams.” During the final unit of the course, students explored the intersections of Gender, Sexuality, and Muslim identity and considered the relationship between religion and sexual orientation. Prescott worked intentionally with his students to deconstruct the notion “that one cannot be BOTH Muslim and LGBTQ” and evaluate how it developed from a historical—and not a religious—context.

“The study of religion has the potential to reinforce harmful narratives that isolate queer and trans students and make them feel as if they cannot be an authentic voice of their tradition, whatever it may be,” said Kerby. “But it also has the potential to help students imagine new possibilities for what it means to be queer and religious, whether or not they identify as either.”

Housiaux added, “Kurt and Lauren’s presentation showed what meaningful partnership can look like for the Tang Institute, bringing together a scholar from higher education with a teacher-scholar from Andover. Their research synthesized research and teaching from two institutions and will inform teaching and learning at Andover and beyond.”

Connecting Strengths: Justice and Education

The lineup of activities also included an exploration into gender identity by Miles McCain ‘19; a session for sharing coming-out stories; a discussion about LGBTQ leadership in schools; and a look back with GSA cofounders Sharon Tentarelli ‘90 and Nancy Boutilier, former instructor in English at PA and current poet. A drag show in Tang Theatre opened the weekend and drew an energetic crowd of about 300 people to cheer on the “stunningly creative, brave performers who ruled the stage in a celebration of self-expression and respect which is as true of Andover today as it was when I graduated twenty-three years ago," said Downer.

Another highlight was the discussion, “I Had a Dream: All-Gender Housing at PA,” led by Karissa King ‘17, who pioneered the idea of establishing an all-gender dorm on the Andover campus. The dorm has been going strong since it was created and has continued to enhance Andover’s intentional community, which is committed to being inclusive for every student. Coreen Martin and David Farnsworth, co-advisors of GSA, organized the weekend of events on campus and saw the celebration as a time to reflect upon and appreciate Andover’s “capacity to change, and not only incrementally, but to sometimes enact radical change because justice and education are intertwined.”

“Research confirms that a learning environment that affirms a student’s sense of self-worth and belonging is critical to learning,” said Martin. “The weekend as a whole was a reminder that as educators we have the duty and the privilege to make a tangible difference, like Sharon Tentarelli did, as a student herself. I hope we are making her proud 30 years after she took action.”

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Photo Credits: Jenny Savino P'21

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