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How One School Builds Empathy Through Public Confessions

Here's the story of Take Back the City, from the students and educators who made it happen.

Joyce Slaton | March 9, 2017

Speaking in public is something many people find terrifying. Standing in front of a crowd and delivering a message takes tremendous courage -- even more so when the subject is a personal one. This skill is hard enough for adults; can you imagine teenagers volunteering to be vulnerable in front of their peers and sharing their deepest secrets in front of a crowd?

One school is breaking down emotional barriers by encouraging students to do just that. Since the 2012–2013 school year, the Freire Charter School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been holding events that end with staff and students standing up in front of a crowd of their peers and unveiling their most personal anecdotes.

Sometimes what Freire students and staff reveal is terrible: the deaths of parents and friends, abusive relationships, thoughts of suicide. Oftentimes, the revelations are inspirational: how someone has turned his or her life around, the gift of a relationship with a loved one. The stories vary. But the results of the intimacy? Unvaryingly life-changing, say those who have participated.

Here's the story of Take Back the City, from the students and educators who made it happen.

Why Sharing Is Important

Many schools have programs designed to encourage school-wide empathy and kindness and decrease bullying, online and in real life. But with its emphasis on intimate sharing, Take Back the City is pretty unique. Why did this inner-city school with 500 students in grades 9–12 decide to start holding these events?

Teacher Chad Corbitt emphasizes the way Take Back the City gives students and teachers an opportunity to connect on a more personal level: "It is a time for us to help the students grow in other areas that are not measurable on a state test. It is a time for the school to come together and support one another."

At Take Back the City Time, students and teachers take time away from academics, says head of school Nick Fels. Students in each grade are assigned to mixed-grade classes to discuss important topics, such as racism. "Activities are set up for students to expand knowledge on specific topics while interacting with students that they never talked to before," says student Semaj Herbert.

The final event? A school-wide meeting at which students and staff give speeches, written or off the cuff, about personal experiences connected with each year's Take Back the City theme -- or, as Fels puts it, "students, staff, and community members baring their souls and talking about who they are in a powerful way."

What They Hear, How It Feels

So what do speakers share? Fels says, "Students and staff generally share about their past, about things they have struggled through. Themes include unimaginable loss, heartache, redemption, struggles, incredible triumphs, inspiring caregivers, and more."

Student Herbert remembers hearing about "diseases that other students did not know their peers lived with, deaths, and tragic experiences that affect how that particular student is today. I shared about the death of my father when I was 11 years old."

It's amazing to "see a student giving a speech and to see them struggle, either with stage fright or just the weight of the topic, and then to see other students show love and support."

What is it like to sit in the audience and listen as people you may not even know reveal their most personal thoughts, experiences, and feelings? Incredible, says the Freire family.

It's amazing to "see a student giving a speech," says teacher Corbitt, "and to see them struggle, either with stage fright or just the weight of the topic, and then to see other students show love and support. It is common [to hear] shouts of 'you can do this!' and 'we love you!' and for students to actually get on stage and stand with the speaker to show support."

students cheering on other students

"While many of the stories shared during Take Back the City have impacted me greatly, nothing has stirred up more emotion than the reaction that the student body has to student speakers," says Michael Dziura, head of academic supports. "When a student is breaking down and sharing a personal moment with the crowd and pauses to collect themselves and 500 students stand up, clap passionately, and yell out words of encouragement, that is the greatest feeling. That's when this place feels less like a school and more like a true community."

How Does Take Back the City Find and Support Speakers?

Take Back the City's success, students and teachers agree, is due entirely to the intimacy and power of what speakers share. Just how does Freire find students and staff with a story to share and convince them to tell it publicly?

Finding students with a story to tell is pretty straightforward, says head of academic affairs Christopher Moore, who says that after the announcement goes out that a Take Back the City event is coming and speakers are needed, some students volunteer of their own accord, and "oftentimes this organic approach yields the best results."

student giving speech

"Some students are targeted and asked to speak or share if a staff member thinks they'd really bring something powerful to the event. We encourage kids to get out of their comfort zone but would also not ask a student to do something they are scared of doing," adds Moore.

Most people would find confiding in a crowd pretty scary, however. How does Freire help give participants the courage to speak?

"Take Back the City speaks to who we are. We are about people first. We are a school and community that values social justice ... "

"For some, it is challenging," says teacher Jason Falconio. But a space "to voice their issues is so strongly desired by teenagers that they tend to jump at the opportunity."

Staffers and students also say that Freire's atmosphere is uniquely supportive. "Freire is a school that builds community, and because of this strong community, students can be at ease and vulnerable," says student Isaiah Exum-Lee. "Students are encouraged to share with the support of their friends. For most it is extremely difficult to share out, but for a few it is very simple, and the energy those rare students have can easily be spread."

"Take Back the City speaks to who we are," says Fels. "We are about people first. We are a school and community that values social justice, and Take Back the City is one example of us putting our money where our mouths are. We are a family. This staff is the smartest and most caring group you could imagine. The students are here for the right reasons. We all share a purpose: to make a better future for all, through empowering our students to be compassionate, successful, community-minded adults."

Still, some students need a little more hand-holding, and Freire staffers are ready to help out, working with students to refine their thoughts and give them support.

student giving speech with teacher support

"Oftentimes students want a support person -- a friend or staff member -- to be up on stage with them," says Moore. "There is some rehearsal beforehand so students feel adequately prepared. Some students need to have a script, and many others have such a compelling story or message, they can speak straight from the heart."

"It is incredibly difficult, but that is why it is so moving," says Fels. "The strength it takes to open up in front of hundreds of people cannot be overestimated."

What Happens Next

You might be saying to yourself: This sounds like a great event, but what about the next day (or week, or month) when the community feeling wears off a little; do speakers regret what they've shared? Are they teased for their revelations?

No, say staff and students. The problems that convinced Freire staff to implement Take Back the City -- a lack of connection and mutual respect between staff and students -- have noticeably decreased. Instead, the school feels closer, more like a family, ready to offer support to one another.

"The teachers and staff members are so supportive and easy to talk to, so I believe that is what allows people to be so open," says student Sydney Blackwell.

"Some of our students have been in situations that I would not wish on anyone and yet have come out stronger, better, and more ready to take on the world."

"Freire is a school that not only helps students academically succeed," says student Tabitha Gee."[It also helps its] students grow into exceptional human beings."

"I think what I have taken away from Take Back the City is the resilience of humanity," says teacher Falconio. "Some of our students have been in situations that I would not wish on anyone and yet have come out stronger, better, and more ready to take on the world."

The takeaway that sticks with him most, says Moore, "is that if you give students the opportunity to voice themselves, to engage with one another in an unscripted and potentially uncomfortable way, you see and hear some really profound things. The authenticity that is created is a good reminder of what we need to be like as people and as professionals."

But perhaps Fels sums up Take Back the City's long-lasting effects best. "Take Back the City is who we are. We build academics on a foundation of culture. But culture and character must always come first. Otherwise, the academics mean nothing."