Middle schoolers gathered last Friday to participate in a specially-programmed Community Day where they were encouraged to engage in dialogues of diversity, equity and inclusivity in order to appreciate and learn from one another. With a kick-off presentation by Vishavjit Singh, cartoonist, storyteller and costume player, they learned that it’s okay to tell their own authentic stories.
Born in Washington, DC, Singh is a first-generation American who has felt out of place his entire life. By following practices of his Sikh religion, he was often bullied for wearing a turban and long facial hair. Even at home, he was ridiculed for wearing glasses and labeled “ugly.”
“I was shy and I didn’t tell anyone about the bullying,” he shared. “Staying silent only hurt me more. I want to tell you right now, you are not defined by how you look. Have the courage to speak up when you hear or see something bad so you will not be alone in your experience.”
Throughout high school and college, Singh continued to be mocked by people who judged him without knowing his story. He turned to cartooning to manage the anger he felt at being misunderstood. “If I returned anger and hate with anger, I’m part of the problem. Instead, I use humor to take on ignorance and intolerance.”
In addition to creating his single-panel cartoons, Singh adopted an alter ego, Sikh Captain America. His goal in donning a modern version of the 1940s superhero costume is to “create art, tell stories, and confuse people.” In other words, to make them think and question their biases in a non-threatening way.
On Community Day, Singh hoped to empower students to embrace and express their own stories, reminding them that listening without judgment is also an important action. “We are all unique. Accept your strengths and don’t hide your vulnerabilities — learn from them.”
Throughout the day, students had personal choice in attending a variety of small group workshops
to learn more about diversity, equity and inclusivity. According to Oscar Gonzalez, director of equity and inclusivity, the goal was to create connections and allow opportunities to see and value the humanity in every member of our community.
In preparing students for the activities of the day, he said, “You’re constantly told that you’re the leaders of tomorrow. Yes, you are the future, and at the same time, you have the power to be the leaders of today. You can be engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders right now. So yes, we seek to prepare you for life beyond Graland, but you can be a change-agent for good right here, right now.”
Helping plan the event were members of the Connections Club, a group dedicated to bringing more diversity to Graland, said Lela Street (8). Personally, she is especially interested in ensuring members of the LGBTQ+ community feel welcome at Graland. At the concluding assembly, the Connections Club introduced an off-shoot, the Alphabet Club, where those identifying as LGBTQ+ and their allies can meet. Students were also invited to come forward and share their takeaways from the day. Some of their thoughts were “What matters is how you are inside,” “Be your unique self,” and “Be supportive, you don’t know how someone else might be struggling.”