A new diversity initiative is beginning at Auburn High School thanks to one student's vision.
Izzy Seidman pictures a school where students lift up other students and teachers have the tools through which to support students of all races and beliefs.
Last year, as Seidman, now a junior, was sitting in class, one of her peers yelled, "Jews are not allowed here!" Seidman is Jewish.
"The teacher kind of just blew it off," she said.
She went home and told her mother about what happened, and her mother contacted the school, but Seidman said she wished the teacher had been more prepared to handle the situation in the moment.
"The incident was really eye-opening. I've experienced things throughout the years with bullying and little things, but I think that one incident really did it," Seidman said. "I felt that other people were probably feeling this way, too."
To support other students, she started a club, Shalom Y'all — created to celebrate Jewish culture and holidays. She is working now to expand the club to celebrate other marginalized groups, too, but says it is "only getting started" and is focused on recruiting more members.
But for Seidman, the club wasn't enough; it wouldn't provide any support or education for teachers. In the spring, she began talking with AHS Assistant Principal Beth Antoine about an idea she was formulating for an on-campus council that would provide diversity training for high school teachers.
"I really want the teachers to be more prepared to deal with these kinds of incidences, because when my incident happened in the fall, the teachers didn’t know what to do about it, and I think that’s a problem," Seidman said. "The council also helps give students a voice among the teachers and administration, because they don’t always know what’s going on. We’re the ones facing it.
"It kind of makes you feel alone."
So this school year, she crafted a proposal for the creation of the Auburn High School Diversity Council, which she submitted to Principal Shannon Pignato, who sits on the newly-formed body alongside Antoine, a handful of teachers and a counselor.
The Diversity Council has met twice so far and will initially focus on equipping teachers with ways to support students of all backgrounds.
"I think year one we’re going to look at ways we’re going to support teachers," Antoine said. "In year two, we’re learning how to support students, and in year three, we’re learning how to help students help students. That’s ultimately Izzy’s original vision — students supporting students, which is really cool."
An orientation will be held at the end of September for faculty, then different diversity workshops will be rolled out, Antoine said. One will be a book study conducted by an AHS teacher who traveled to attend a diversity workshop over the summer; a second will include activities that are more "hands-on," Antoine said. A third workshop will consist of discussion and will be largely reflection-based.
Teachers will choose which workshops to participate in, and then they all will have the opportunity to attend a day trip to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, or The Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery.
After preparing teachers to foster a more inclusive atmosphere in the first year or two, Seidman said she would like to see a mentorship program started for students.
"I want to establish a peer-training program where seniors will be grouped with sophomores in their Tiger Connect classes — it's like their homeroom or advisory period — and (focus on) team building or how to navigate the high school and talk about things like diversity and inclusion — to have that kind of older brother or sister on campus," Seidman said, adding that she would like to see teachers pairing students "so it's not like you're paired with your best friend; you're paired with somebody with a different background."
Seidman said the purpose of the Diversity Council is for all students at Auburn High to feel involved on campus.
"The end goal of this is for all students to feel that they have a voice and have a teacher advocate to go to if a problem arises, and for teachers to be equipped to handle these types of issues," she said. "My hope is that in all of this, kids who are in the minority, whether race, religion, or sexuality, will feel that they are an important part of this community."
Seidman said this experience has shown her she can be a leader and given her a new passion. She used to want to be a doctor, and while she still gives that profession some thought, she said she would love to continue focusing on diversity issues in her future career.
"My interests and my future career have changed because of this," she said. "I feel more comfortable with public speaking and speaking up for myself."
Any student interested in getting involved with Shalom Y'all or in providing input to the Diversity Council, which encourages student involvement, can talk to Seidman or reach out to a faculty member on the council. They include Pignato, Antoine, counselor Isalie Corneil, social studies teachers Laci Slagley, Donna Yeager and Shane Sanker, and Spanish teacher Sarah Holder.