Woodlands community explores paths to greater inclusion

Powerful remarks from someone who befriended Nelson Mandela under somewhat unusual circumstances provided the framework for this year’s “Open Hearts: Be the Change” day at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart. Students, faculty and staff set aside the usual classroom routine Jan. 27 to focus on exploring ways of building bridges toward greater inclusion and equity in our society by grounding themselves in the Sacred Heart values of community and relationships. The theme for the day was Understanding Implicit Bias and Becoming Allies for One Another.

In virtual remarks to those at the all-girls college-prep high school in Lake Forest, keynote speaker Christo Brand emphasized the importance of finding common ground with people we might believe to be unrelatable. He has done just that. At age 19, Brand began his first career as a prison guard to Nelson Mandela. To his surprise, Brand realized he and Mandela had much in common and the two became close friends.

“This story connects deeply with our Sacred Heart mission,” said Jessica Campbell, director of Woodlands Academy’s center for global studies, who coordinated the 2020-21 Open Hearts event. “Goal 4, Criterion 1, states ‘The school, affirming that all are created in the image and likeness of God, promotes the inherent dignity of the human person and strives for relationships characterized by inclusion and mutual respect.’ My hope for the day is that each student seeks to understand more about others, strengthens her relationships, and engages in necessary reflection after the day is over.”

Clara Bartusiak, a sophomore from Lake Forest, also set a tone for the day in her remarks during the Opening Prayer Service: “We come together today to celebrate each other, to celebrate the differences that make each of us who we are, and to remind ourselves that walking through life with an open heart makes it much more worthwhile than shutting others out. Today is about wondering at the beautiful kaleidoscope cast by our different appearances, passions, mannerisms, relationships, races, beliefs, cultures and creations.”

Following the Opening Prayer Service and the Keynote Address, students participated in two, one-hour breakout sessions of their choice. Some of the sessions were developed by Woodlands Academy faculty while others were facilitated by outside experts. One was led by members of the Sacred Heart presence at the United Nations discussing ways in which Sacred Heart students can live the vision of “Opening Hearts and Being the Change” through the society’s U.N. affiliation. For example, there is an annual opportunity for students to contribute globally to International Day of the Girl. The international Society of the Sacred Heart has been present at the U.N. as a non-governmental organization (NGO) since 2003. Other breakout session topics included “Discovering and Understanding your own Biases” and “Implicit Bias is Global.”

Even though Woodlands Academy’s second annual “Open Hearts: Be the Change” day has concluded, discussions of lessons learned will extend beyond Jan. 27. School officials intend to continue the dialogue aimed at embracing diversity on a regular basis with a goal of helping students feel like they can be agents of change.