Taliah Mancini and Yanni Velasquez: Lick’s First Student Inclusion Chairs

Zoe Harris ‘16, Hyphen co-managing editor and reporter, sat down with Yanni Velasquez ‘15 and Taliah Mancini ‘15, who are the first to be elected as Lick’s Student Inclusion Chairs––a Student Council position new this year.

ZH: What were your expectations and first ideas when you heard about the Student Inclusion Chair position?

Taliah Mancini ‘15: I was excited. Because it’s new, I felt we could essentially do whatever we wanted with it, that we could pioneer a new position. In the beginning of the year we were of struggling, thinking; we had ideas about what we wanted to change at Lick, but how could we begin…. Then we thought of starting a Student Inclusion Blog. (http://lwhsinclusion.tumblr.com/).

Yanni Velasquez ‘15: I feel the position was sort of a calling; it’s not available at most schools. I think being at Lick and representing part of the one or two percent Filipino population, I’ve had a lot of experience with how it feels to be excluded and included in different environments. Given our diverse perspectives in terms of inclusion, where we come from, and who we hang out with, it’s been a privilege working with Taliah.

ZH: How did you decide to run together?

TM: There was an announcement for the position and I was really interested. It felt like a meaningful thing to do, as Yanni said. I’ve always wanted to participate in some type of leadership at Lick, to feel like I was changing the culture of the school for the better. I knew I wanted to run with someone else, because it felt like one person in this position wouldn’t bring enough to the table––I feel like a position like this needs different perspectives. I was thinking about people that I’ve worked with in the past, and I felt like Yanni and I work really well together and get along really well. We come from very different places, and I thought that would bring a lot to the position. I think the reason we have been working so well together is because, now, if I have an idea and Yanni thinks it’s a bad idea, he’ll say “No, that’s a bad idea.” But at the same time, we support each other. I think we’re almost like a checks and balances system, and our diversity of experiences helps us talk to the entire student body and not just one part of it.

YV: I totally agree. It’s no doubt that race has been a big part of my life here at Lick. Especially on the Inclusion Blog we have a lot of questions and topics targeted towards me, about my race, about what I think race is.  And I feel like, running alone, I wouldn’t want to make this position just about that––the position is not about me, it’s not just about one topic. I feel like Taliah, with her work with SDLC (Student Diversity Leadership Conference), and being a transfer, she has many experiences that just give her a better perspective on the school. Making the position as diverse as possible was what I was looking for. We have our own personal beliefs, but our job is not to impose our beliefs on people, but to help them see everyone’s perspective.

ZH: Talk about the Student Inclusion Blog more–– how often do you answer questions; what are the most frequently brought up issues?

TM: We’re basically on the blog every night, so questions are answered pretty regularly. I think we’ve answered every question. We’re trying to be impartial with our answers, and we really don’t want it to become something about our beliefs and our views on whatever issue we’re talking about. Because Ferguson is a big thing right now, last night we were getting a lot of questions after the verdict about what we thought. While we think there is a place for our own anger and frustration, we want the blog to be a place where anyone can voice their opinions. We’ve been trying to facilitate conversation, like giving students the courage––or whatever it is they need––to actually say what they want to say rather than us preaching.

YV: We have been pushing to get more submissions and comments on the blog that are not anonymous. I think we’ve taken the courage to stand up and show that we’re vulnerable, that we’re willing to answer these questions with our faces tagged. I think that’s the ultimate goal, by the end of the year––putting your face on something makes it more authentic. When people ask me why I feel excluded at Lick, in such a progressive school, I just feel like if they ask me anonymously, why should I pour my heart out, telling them such a deep and meaningful story of what I’ve gone through. But we put our full attention into answering these questions, we text each other before we answer, like “what are we going to say?!” It’s fun, we learn more about each other, too.

ZH: How do you hope students will utilize the blog?

TM: I hope by posting real, authentic questions from people; I want people to feel like they can share their personal experiences [with student inclusion]. I recognize that if the way to do that is to be anonymous, then that’s an awesome first step, and we can build from there.

YV: I agree, and in addition to that, I think my initial thoughts about making the blog were for students to get their stories out there, and I didn’t realize it was going to turn into more questions about how we can improve things at Lick. It’s really powerful. I think people need to know about what students are going through each day. I don’t even mind if that starts with anonymous people sharing how they feel in class and how they feel at lunch. Ultimately I just want to get people’s stories out there. We’ve been working with the Ethics Counsel to take what we have on the blog and put it out in a more tangible and visible form in a space on campus.

ZH: What does the blog writing and editing process look like? Is there a faculty member that approves responses before they’re posted?

TM: It doesn’t go through anyone else other than us, which I am really grateful for. I feel like we can post our unedited views on the topic. Sometimes we’ll text each other about the questions, sometimes they’re targeted towards only one of us, and sometimes we feel the topic is something the other person is more equipped to deal with. Yanni answers the majority of the ones about race at Lick, and I answer more about what it’s like to be a girl. Mostly we answer together.

YV: I just like the freedom of not going through a teacher’s approval on all our responses. Knowing that these questions and responses come straight from students from Lick; it makes it more authentic.

ZH: What are your goals for the rest of the year in this new position?

TM: We’ve been working with the ethics council of adults and we’re looking to start a chain of conversations regarding different issues that are going on at Lick. For example, last night, everyone was talking about Ferguson, and so we could immediately set up a conversation at lunch for today. More broadly, I just want to feel like I’ve somehow shifted the culture of the school. Obviously that’s difficult, but I want students to feel that the blog or a conversation made a difference. I do also hope this position is continued, and that we set up a good foundation for the next people to carry it on.

YV: I think, for a lot of the year these important conversations have lived online, and we want it to become something that people feel comfortable talking about at Lick and in person. Student facilitation is important, and Walk With a Purpose is a great example of that. We’re pushing little by little so people feel more confident in not being anonymous when sharing their stories. What I would say is that, however much you talk about it, you’re not an expert. Don’t try to tell people they’re wrong. Hear someone’s opinion, and if it differs with you, try to understand why it differs with you. The most you can do is get your story out. We’re not really here to tell people who’s right and wrong or to educate, we’re here to facilitate. Ultimately we’re pushing to get students who don’t usually go to these discussions to come.

TM: I’ve learned that it’s really important to have positions like this and facilitated conversations, but when it really comes down to it, it’s every day actions that really matter, and it’s important to be aware of how your actions affect people. If you want to make an inclusive and diverse school then you need to live that.

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About Zoe Harris

Zoe Harris, a senior, is celebrating her third year as co-managing editor of the Hyphen and as a reporter for the Paper Tiger. She is a leader of the literary magazine club, Lit Mag, and has written far too many weird poems. Zoe loves writing by Junot Díaz, David Sedaris, Mary Oliver, and Richard Siken, and the Harry Potter character she most closely identifies with is Luna Lovegood. She loves the Hyphen dearly and hopes readers do, too.

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