The Hidden Agenda of High School Assemblies

By Jessica Richter-Furman

Illustrator: Chris Kindred

Chris Kindred

I was sitting in the top row of bleachers, my assigned seat in the supervision chart that never seems to change. Several mothers and their children walked out on the gym floor. The moms were all breast cancer survivors, part of our school’s Think Pink Week celebration. As I shushed a group of girls who laughed during this solemn moment, I wished I wasn’t stuck up there with kids who showed how little they cared by the distance they set between themselves and the action. Hadn’t several of them raised their hands a few minutes ago to indicate someone they loved had battled cancer?

As the students around me plugged in their ear buds and turned down the brightness on their screens, I guiltily breathed a sigh of relief. I should have asked them to put their electronics away, but I didn’t see the point. Instead, I turned back to the assembly and took a good look at the cancer-surviving moms and their children.

As usual, they all appeared to be white, unlike the students I was sitting with.

At Liberty High School, located in Hillsboro, a suburb of Portland, Oregon, almost half of our students are students of color (45.2 percent). We teach the children of Intel employees living in fancy digs around Orenco Station, the offspring of Helvetia farmers who count their relationship with the land in generations, the denizens of suburban sprawl, and the sons and daughters of recent immigrants.

But you wouldn’t know this by coming to our assemblies.

Teachers wonder why so many of our Latina/o students (33 percent of the student body) choose not to get involved during assemblies. But often something is wrong in the way we ask. We accuse our Latina/o students of being lazy (Why won’t they stand up?) or apathetic (Don’t they want to feel included?) when we should be questioning what’s unfolding right before our eyes.

I leaned over and whispered to a colleague, “How come only white moms get cancer?”

He laughed, but I hadn’t meant it as a joke. For some time I’d been wondering about the hidden messages we send students through assemblies, messages of belonging to kids who are regularly given a voice, and messages of exclusion to everyone else.

Whether we like them or not, assemblies are often the only opportunity to gather as an entire school community. That’s why it is imperative for all of our students to see themselves reflected in our assemblies. When we distill our community gathering time into yet another opportunity to parade privileged and traditionally recognized students across the gym floor, we send our student body a dangerous message: The world is run by white guys and you should probably get used to it.

At least at our school, there is a lack of diversity in leadership programs. If a diverse group of students isn’t planning assemblies, how can we expect these events to feature the faces or concerns of our diverse population? Another issue is how students are chosen to be part of the assemblies; if no one is thoughtfully regulating who gets behind the microphone, then the same students (in our case, white males) will be featured all the time.

That’s why it’s crucial for us as educators to pay more attention to assemblies.

“This Needs to Change. Now.”

My own journey toward questioning equitable representation in student leadership and assemblies started about eight years ago. At the time, Liberty was divided into four smaller “schools within the school.” Each of these academies had its own student leadership group, and I was the staff advisor for one of them.

One spring afternoon, Ramona, an intimidating AP chemistry teacher who had served in the Romanian infantry, burst through my classroom door brandishing the email I’d sent that morning with the names of students chosen for our academy’s leadership group the following year.

“Tell me the process you went through to choose these kids,” she demanded as she marched across my empty classroom to spread her papers across my desk. In addition to my email, she had pages of charts and graphs.

Panicked, I took a steadying breath and explained how I’d created an application with carefully crafted questions that got, I thought, to the heart of effective student leadership. I had printed these on bright yellow paper and made them accessible all over the school. I advertised. There may have been glitter involved.

Ramona jabbed a finger at the pie graphs that analyzed our student body by race, socioeconomic status, and gender. “These students do not represent our kids. How can they serve them? This needs to change. Now.”

At the time, I was outraged. Did she have any inkling what I’d just gone through? The time I’d spent reading applications and following up? I picked the best kids from the ones who filled out an application. Was it my fault who didn’t apply?

But Ramona was right. I’d missed the mark. There weren’t nearly enough Latina/o students to represent the population of our academy. Ramona helped me realize that my responsibility to support Latina/o leadership extended far beyond what I’d done. I decided to dig into this issue more, but then our school structure changed; we dropped the academy system and switched to a more traditional all-school leadership program, and I was no longer involved.

But I continued to think about why Latina/o students didn’t want to be in leadership and I never stopped paying attention to what happened during our assemblies. Do we see a representative group of students? Is microphone time shared among students of color and white students? Is the gender balance equitable? I watched for years without speaking up, noticing how often white males spoke into the microphone while female students played stereotypical support roles and our students of color blended into the background, voiceless.

When I finally decided it was time to speak up, I wondered if it was fair for me, a white woman and an English teacher, to interfere. Mr. B., our activities director, who is also white, was new to his position last year and a friend who has long impressed me with his enthusiasm for working with kids. The assembly environment is a visible reflection of his classroom; how would I feel if someone came in and started demanding I change what I teach? I hesitated, uncertain if I would cause irreparable damage to a positive working relationship by asking what I knew he would view as uncomfortable questions.

Air Time and Allies

Mr. B. had been on the job for about a month when some staff realized that an assembly our MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantíl Chican@ de Aztlán) students had planned to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month had been hijacked by student leadership and transformed into a generic diversity assembly. This was especially painful, according to teacher and MEChA co-advisor Paul Hanson, a white male, because “they were told they were being ‘exclusive’ by having an assembly celebrating Hispanic heritage. What started out as their assembly idea to educate Liberty on Hispanic heritage and celebrate Latina/o culture turned into a diversity assembly where most of our MEChA students’ ideas were vetoed or ignored.”

Colleagues reported that when they approached him with their concerns, Mr. B. didn’t seem willing to talk about what had happened; he didn’t see a problem. This wasn’t surprising to me since he had told me that he was the kind of guy who “doesn’t see color.” I knew that equity conversations made him uncomfortable, but I also knew these kinds of conversations were exactly what Liberty needed.

When I finally went to Mr. B. to talk to him about the assembly, his responses echoed my first response all those years ago when I stared down Ramona’s trigger finger at the numbers. He said those staff members had missed the point. It was about “bringing Liberty together as one.” He had vetoed the Hispanic heritage assembly because he wanted to make sure the diversity assembly “celebrated all Liberty students.” Maybe he didn’t fully realize our MEChA students had successfully moved the diversity assembly from a Cinco de Mayo celebration they felt didn’t celebrate Latina/o culture to an assembly during National Hispanic Heritage Month. But I also thought it was possible he wasn’t seeing how much our assemblies forget to celebrate the achievements of or fully recognize our Latina/o students.

At the end of that conversation, I told him I was interested in gathering data about our assemblies through a lens focused on the inclusion of students of color. Though he was hesitant at first, I gained his support. He promised to help by providing copies of assembly scripts. I told him I’d be taking notes about which students spoke and which students were visible, looking at both race and gender. He reminded me that I shouldn’t expect too much right away because it takes time to make change. He had inherited these leadership students from the previous teacher, so he felt that who ended up on the floor was largely out of his control.

When I walked into the gym for our next assembly, I was expecting the celebration of whiteness I had grown accustomed to. I was not, however, expecting female voices to be almost nonexistent. Of the seven people who spoke on the microphone, the five most prominent voices were white males. There was one male student of color, who helped run some of the assembly’s events, and one adult white female: me. I spoke for roughly 30 seconds to advertise our upcoming staff talent show.

I was shocked. I could somewhat understand why a leadership class with a limited number of Latina/o students might put on an assembly where few Latina/o students were visible. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that zero female leadership students had been at the microphone.

Afterward, I pulled aside several leadership students and asked why they didn’t have speaking roles.

Tessa, a junior and white female, said, “I really want to, but I’m afraid to ask because they tell us girls have annoying voices and that when a girl gets on the mic everyone stops listening.”

I had just seen Tessa give a campaign speech in front of roughly 1,200 students at the Oregon Association of Student Council’s fall conference. Not only is she an exceptionally well-spoken student who is fearless in front of crowds and excellent on the microphone, her speech earned her the position of Oregon Student Executive Council president.

“You have to ask?” I was suddenly very aware that Tessa hadn’t been on the mic in front of her own student body since earning the state presidency two months earlier.

She explained that she isn’t part of the committee in charge of planning assemblies, so to get herself a speaking role she’d have to put in a request with the students who are.

When I asked Tessa how she feels about the limited speaking roles available to female students and students of color in our assemblies she said it “sets back the empowerment of young women and minorities. Not being taken seriously because I’m female is extremely frustrating.” Unfortunately, she adds, she knows many female students who feel the same way.

Elena is one of them. She is a Latina senior who has been in leadership all four of her years at Liberty. She says she doesn’t ask the assembly committee members to let her help lead the assemblies because “they don’t make themselves approachable. Students don’t even know the opportunity to speak up is there.”

“Things will be better next year,” Tessa assured me. “Maybe I’ll get elected to an office. Maybe then I’ll get to speak.”

When I repeated this conversation to Mr. B, he was upset. “They know they can always ask me,” he said.

But is that enough?

It shouldn’t take female students asking permission to get their voices heard. Nor should a group like MEChA need to ask to organize a Latina/o culture assembly that celebrates and educates our community, only to have it taken away. People with power in our schools need to start asking the right questions and to start teaching all of our students to notice inequities so these issues become community concerns.

Changing the Message

Although I knew Liberty leadership students didn’t have structured conversations about assemblies in terms of race and gender, I wondered how common these conversations were in other leadership programs.

Dave, the white male activities director at another Oregon school, said he worked with his students early on to establish an environment in which talking about race and gender is not only OK, it’s essential to their success as a leadership team. “Every post-event evaluation,” he told me, “includes this question: Did every student in the stands see themselves on the floor?” He challenges his students to inspect every aspect of their assemblies, from the script and student speakers to the decorations and activities, to make certain that students see themselves represented “through race, gender, grade level, and/or activity (their club, their academic level, their sports team).”

Despite this level of scrutiny and reflection, Dave acknowledges one of the challenges of assemblies is that “the teacher can’t vet everything.” At some point, teachers have to “prompt students to be intentional in their choices rather than doing what’s easy.” When they choose the easy route and it backfires, the class needs to talk about it. For example, after one assembly, Dave asked his students, “Can anyone tell me why we ended up with nine out of 10 white students in that activity?”

Nathan responded: “Sure. Carl, Maggie, Katie, Josh, and I each picked two students a piece.”

“And who did you pick?”

“Our friends.”

“Great. So we sent five white students out to find people to participate in this activity. They chose their friends and we ended up with nine white kids on the floor. What do you think we should do next time?”

“Not choose all white kids?”

This was the beginning of the sort of conversation our students need to have after every assembly. How can students lead if they don’t know who they are leading or aren’t challenged to wonder what an assembly might look from someone else’s perspective?

According to Tessa: “Involving more students of color and young women may open other students’ eyes to the fact that we can be taken seriously and can be positive speakers and role models. Allowing students to inquire about assembly roles would open the microphone up to a different group of students. Leadership shouldn’t just be about standing on a pedestal, it should be about inviting others to share our success as well as find their own, and inspiring them to find the courage to make their voices heard.”

A Work in Progress

Although the diversity assembly was fraught with errors, the discussions afterward resulted in someone asking Elena to get on the microphone for the first time.

When she told me about the experience she said: “I actually had students coming up to me and saying they felt like I was talking to them, that they felt connected to the assembly. I realized I’m not just a leadership student; I’m a Latina leadership student. I never realized how much my voice could matter.”

Elena also danced in that assembly. I remember when the lights went out and a spotlight revealed Elena and her sister standing on the giant letter L at center court. “Estrellita de Madrugada” began playing on the sound system.

The students around me looked up toward the action as the spotlight widened to reveal more dancers joining in. I started counting. The students represented a wide swath of Liberty’s population. They were leadership students. MEChA kids. AVID scholars.

Students cheered and sang along. Por la mañana. Yo te veré. Then, holding their phones above their heads, they flicked open their camera apps with agile thumbs and pressed record. They took this moment with them in their pockets, posted it on social media, shared it with friends.

Asking Elena to speak on a microphone once in four years of high school leadership isn’t enough to demonstrate that Latina voices matter. A dance number in a diversity assembly isn’t enough to prove that Latina/o students are a valued and visible part of our community. If that’s all that happens, it reinforces another stereotype: that students of color shine only as dancers, singers, and athletes.

When I made the decision to start asking questions about the hidden messages in high school assemblies, I knew something was wrong in the way we raised questions about student involvement, that we were often placing the blame on students for not getting involved rather than examining the systems that alienate them. But I came to realize how little I actually understood about the number of obstacles that stand in the way of equitable representation.

A school community that doesn’t make sure our students of color and our female students have voices and positions of power during all-school gatherings is a school community that reinforces the idea that the world should be run by white men. If assemblies are going to have value, they must change to demonstrate that all of our students have the right and ability to speak up, to be seen, to be heard, and to be valued.

It is our collective responsibility to get them there.

Jessica Richter-Furman ( teaches at Liberty High School in Hillsboro Oregon. Most names have been changed.