Mark S. was once a self-described “shy freshman.” Now a senior at Christian Brothers High School (CBHS) in Memphis, Tennessee, he stumbled upon Facing History & Ourselves through a student leadership group four years ago. He was looking for a way to participate and Facing History piqued his curiosity when a call to join was announced.
Mark was hooked from the first meeting when he found himself having deeper conversations with peers than ever before.
“The first thing that we did was an identity chart,” recalls Mark, now Vice President of the student leadership group. “That was the first time I'd ever looked at not only how I view myself and my identity, but also how people see me. It was a discussion that I'd never experienced in any of my classes or anything. It was more mature.”
In classrooms and beyond, Facing History creates brave spaces in which to engage and discuss identity and personal experiences. This allows students to not just open up, but to take in the lives and perspectives of their peers.
As a white male at a predominantly white high school, Mark says he realized the responsibility he has to hear and learn from others with identities different from his own. As a student leader finding his voice with the help of Facing History, he worked with fellow students to emphasize the importance of getting out of one’s echo chamber and sharing in someone else’s journey.
“It's a place to step back and listen and let people that don't have the same beliefs as you and don't look the same as you speak their own stories. I think it's crucial to recognize where your voice lies in conversation and who maybe hasn't had a chance to speak up historically.”
Over the course of his Facing History experience, Mark also came to appreciate the importance of establishing a social contract. A social contract gives everyone the opportunity to agree upon parameters for a healthy discussion, such as empathy and respect.
Mark notes that the social contract can sometimes be glossed over by students who are initially dismissive. “‘Oh social contract, we'll all be nice to each other, obviously, whatever.’ But if you don't know for certain that other people won't immediately be going behind your back and judging you, it's incredibly hard to have a good conversation.”
That might sound like a lot of additional legwork for a student-led initiative. But putting in the effort up front is pivotal, especially when approaching subject matters that require vulnerability.
“One of my religion teachers expressed it best by saying that we must ‘own our impact.’ You can't just say you had good intentions. When you're having tough conversations, and especially when people are talking about identity, you have to be on your toes and constantly reassess.”
Mark began freshman year searching for his place in a new community and found a valuable experience, along with a new set of tools that he gained from participating in Facing History’s student leadership group. He has modeled how to be intentional with his thoughts and actions in a way that shows commitment to others well-being. Words and choices have real impact, in ways large and small, and through his student leadership, Mark has helped more students embrace a culture of dialogue and understanding.
As Mark prepares to graduate from CBHS and continue his education, he believes the ethical framework he developed through Facing History will continue to guide and inspire his life.
He says he hopes to find a similar group in college, and if he has trouble finding one that provides the kind of community he found with Facing History, he already has a solution at hand: he’ll create his own and welcome others who, like him, are eager to learn and listen together.