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Reflections on a decade of transformation and diversity workshops at Penryn College

| September 9, 2019 | 0 Comments


There is a special silence that descends over the room when a grade of scholars engages fully with a game from one of our workshops called ‘Crossing the line’, and steps up with courage, sharing their realities with each other.

It is a silence unlike others, filled with the collective concentration and focus of a group. The world has faded away and they are all profoundly in the moment. Here they are recognising our common humanity as the most powerful force overriding diversity; taking note of those who share common experiences and maybe pain; witnessing the tears of some and being moved to raise their hands in support and sympathy; and learning that ‘they are not alone’, possibly for the first time in their lives. Here they are awakened to the consequences of thoughtless prejudices and discrimination or toxic and dysfunctional lifestyles, and stimulated to inner reflection and a journey towards a better world for us all. Penryn College, in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, rolled out its first transformation and diversity workshops just over a decade ago. Uniquely placed at the junction of three countries, and with a healthy representation of the various racial groups in South Africa, Penryn College has been leading the way in what has become the buzzword of the present. The lessons learnt from robust discussion among a diverse scholar body have, without doubt, been able to place our alumni in an advantageous position both locally and abroad, where they can contribute in an informed and positive way to a more harmonious human environment at a time when the globe is being challenged once again by nationalistic right-wing forces.1

A carefully planned intervention

In South Africa, we are plagued by the legacy of apartheid. As adult South Africans, possibly with the best of intentions, we tend to limit the possibilities of the future through our own prejudices, politics and deeply held fears. We impart these fears to our children and so continue the process of transgenerational trauma and prejudice. Penryn College committed to making a difference. In the words of former headmaster, Greg Theron, in 2009: ‘Our founders were anxious that we became the kind of school that would look at the Lowveld, and hopefully South Africa, and strive to make a difference. And this not only in the typical way of schools – academics, sport, culturals, etc. – but in the other less tangible stuff – in the fields of human relationships.’ This was and is a massive challenge, and is more urgent than ever in 2019, when the bubble of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ has well and truly popped and we are contemplating the way forward in an uncertain political climate. At our workshops, scholars play a number of games in a controlled and safe environment. At no stage is anyone forced to respond to a question, and they are encouraged to interact as far as they feel comfortable. The workshops are conducted by a scholar-headed Transformation and Diversity Committee, made up of matric volunteers. This committee is the largest we have, and this speaks to the interest, need and importance the scholars themselves attach to the task. The two heads of the committee are both leaders elected to the scholar executive committee by both the student and staff cohorts. As current deputy head of scholar affairs, I oversee the committee. In preparation for the workshop, as a group, we brainstorm current issues in the school, and develop or use games designed to encourage the participants to engage with the identified issues. ‘Crossing the line’ is a highly effective game conducted in silence, where a matric committee member slowly reads questions which the scholars from the workshop then respond to (or not) by crossing a literal line on the floor if it is relevant to them. The questions require thought processes and responses that range from easy to challenging, but are at no stage threatening. Other games such as ‘World café’ require discussion. Here the scholars circulate to various tables, where they get asked a question and then their responses are summarised and given to the rest of the grade by the table leader. This facilitates a discussion where all literally have a voice and are heard by the whole of the group; a truly democratic process and where despite a pressured external environment, a scholar can finally voice what they really feel. The issues that draw tears are mostly associated with the realities of the 21st century. Divorce, substance abuse, depression, domestic violence, gender discrimination, sexual identity issues, religious and racial discrimination are all noted. The pain being carried by some children is significant and is clearly a factor that comes into the classroom with them and prevents many from attaining their potential. Some of the scholars are locked into a world of silence. The committee are trained to intervene and offer comfort where necessary, and to report to me in life-threatening circumstances.

Scholars inspired by young leaders

Over the years, we have experimented with a variety of different workshop styles. These have included having panel discussions with Mandela-Rhodes scholars2 and other young leaders from universities and other similar organisations as a lead in to the workshop. These young adults are carefully selected for their leadership skills and maturity to bridge the gap between universities, scholars and the teaching staff at school. At times, they have also led parts of the workshops after the panel discussions, and have brought fascinating outside perspectives to the discussions. Scholars are hungry for fresh, authentic and honest discussion and have received the panellists with great enthusiasm and standing ovations. The challenges the panellists have overcome in their own lives, and their successes, are inspirational. This makes them great mentors or role models, and offers insight to an emerging young leadership who are possibly going to be the hope and change of the future. We have learned from this that the workshops cannot be allowed to become outdated or irrelevant. The university protests of 20163 trickled down into many schools around South Africa. This has necessitated a consideration of the need for decolonisation, an examination of white privilege and an understanding of toxic masculinity and rape culture in these discussions. Many of the staff members who have also been in the audience for these discussions have told me that the discussions have been ‘life changing’, and how we need more of them. The parent body ideally needs to be brought in for the transformation benefits to roll out across the region. While most scholars find something of value to take away from the workshops, not all embrace them. Some of the conversations might be uncomfortable, pushing the individual out of their comfort zone. If, however, they are challenged to think about the particular issue, then we have accomplished an important part of our task, which is to get people to engage with long-held thought processes that may not be adding value to our country and its people. For transformation to be successful, it is advisable that the entire staff attend workshops where possible. This encourages subject teachers to buy into the importance of including African artists, historians, authors, poets and playwrights into the syllabus. Former cultural arrogance has been challenged and found wanting. Former acceptance of assimilation has been replaced a strong desire to claim cultural heritage by the majority. Change is necessary. The benefits of diversity are now well understood. Exposure to diversity in one’s formative years can only lead to a stronger EQ (emotional quotient) and healthy interpersonal skills. This places the alumni who have passed through our workshops in a stronger position in the workplace than most. Confidence and understanding when dealing with diversity are undoubted assets globally.

Making a difference?

We are aware of the numbers of scholars passing through our school over the years, and the fact that our time with them is fleeting. While we have a number of stars among our alumni who are making a difference both here and abroad, questions we cannot fully quantify are: do the majority of our scholars go out into the wide world and become change agents, or do they get swallowed up by the power of groupthink outside our grounds, however toxic? Will the seeds we have sown germinate when the time is necessary? I believe once you have been exposed to these issues, you can never claim, as so many people did in so many instances in the 20th century, ‘not to have known about it.’4 I believe the seeds will bear fruit, in most cases.

Helen Ashley is deputy head of scholar affairs at Penryn College.


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Category: Spring 2019

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