Theo Wilson, keynote speaker for the 2020 CA PlatFORUM.

Virtual PlatFORUM generates dialog, meaningful action

PlatFORUM—one of Colorado Academy’s most impactful Upper School traditions—provides a day to engage in conversations around diversity, social justice, equity, and inclusivity, allowing students to gain understanding and build community. The experience helps students self reflect and develop tools and language to have meaningful discussions.

This year the keynote and sessions took place on Zoom, and while students missed the experience of being together in person, their active participation and thoughtful dialog made a lasting impact.

“Pulling off a virtual conference is always tricky,” says Sarah Wright, CA’s Director of Inclusivity. “You’re constantly worried about how you can make it feel personal and welcoming. How do you cultivate an environment where students feel seen, heard, and valued, even on a virtual PlatFORUM? Overall, I believe we were able to make this happen in a way that felt good to students.”

This year’s theme, “Going Beneath the Surface,” encouraged students to move beyond words and to strategize real-world actions to help make their school, community, and world a better place.

“The goals of a full-day initiative like PlatFORUM are always threefold,” says CA Upper School Principal Jon Vogels. “One, increasing cultural competency of all our students. Two, providing greater understanding of the perspectives of those who are not part of the majority culture. And three, building trust and compassion within the community.”

Powerful keynote speaker

Theo Wilson, a Denver-based speaker, poet, writer, and actor, was the special guest and opening speaker.

Wilson—best known for going undercover in the alt-right movement—shared personal stories of racism, trauma, and powerlessness he has experienced in his life as a Black man. In one, Wilson told how he was beaten by a police officer at a nightclub and taken to a back room where he feared he would die. In another, as an undergraduate at Florida A&M, he explained how his school was bombed twice by a racist vending-machine operator. He expressed frustration that the explosions at his Historically Black University did not generate the media attention one would expect from such an incident. And he talked about his friend, Isaiah Shoels, who was taunted with racial slurs before being killed in the massacre at Columbine High School.

But it was in response to the killings of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner that Wilson knew he needed to use his voice to make a change. He channeled his sorrow and anger into award-winning slam poetry and led barbershop talks, where he was able to create healing space for difficult and painful dialog.

Student-led workshops

Following a spoken-word performance by Wilson, students broke into sessions to further explore the theme of going beneath the surface. The workshops—many led by students—explored more than 20 different topics, including “Allyship in Action,” “Women in Science,” “Anti-Vaxxing,” and “Why Hate Exists.” Students used virtual breakout rooms and larger groups to share experiences and ideas in a safe environment.

Student presenters truly felt empowered and were able to fully own the sessions they were leading, Wright says. She was impressed by the challenging content and depth students displayed—both as contributors and leaders.

Tuhin Sur led the session entitled “Diversity in Friend Groups and How that Informs One’s World View.” As the only Freshman presenter, Sur did a lot of research to prepare, including watching TED Talks and learning how to read the room.

“The discussion—about microaggressions in high school —generated a lot of response from my peer group,” Sur says. “They are small acts that are one of the many consequences of negative stereotypes. They insult and belittle people. Sometimes, these acts can be unintentional, as we do it without realizing they can be hurtful. The students seemed to take away that these small acts can mean a lot.”

A call to action

Students reconvened in the afternoon to think about steps to move beyond words and into action. Wright and Carla Mestas, Executive Director of the Circle Organization, challenged students to think about:

  • Who they are—including 90% of identities that people don’t automatically see
  • What is their why—what inspiration is at their core
  • What is their how—how can they use their passions to help others

Students were asked to reflect on how they might bridge their words and beliefs with real action, whether that’s at CA—where there are many ways to get involved—or in another arena.

Open mic

PlatFORUM wrapped up with a virtual Open Mic, where students shared thoughts, perspectives, and feelings about the day. To allow for free and honest discussion, teachers were excluded, with only Wright, Head of School Mike Davis, Upper School Counselors, and Upper School Deans allowed in the room.

“Open Mic stood out for me, because it’s student-led with no interference from adults,” Wright says. “Our students openly embodied the keynote message of having compassion and empathy for those with opposing perspectives and challenging ideas and not people.“

By giving students the space and time to think deeply about these issues, to consider their own identities and beliefs, and to openly converse with their peers, the PlatFORUM experience serves as an important day of growth for the CA Upper School community.