Mason team behind “Courageous Conversations” encourages high schoolers to speak out

George Mason University doctoral student Giovanni Dazzo speaks during Courageous Conversations. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Office of Communications and Marketing

When Meagan Call-Cummings was invited to research how to build a stronger sense of school community at Osbourne Park High School, the George Mason University assistant professor of qualitative methodology in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) discovered many students felt disconnected and silenced at school, unable to talk about issues of importance for fear of punishment, rejection and bullying.

Courageous Conversations, a school club and annual daylong workshop for high schoolers, is changing that. More than 80 students from Osbourne and Osbourne Park High Schools in Prince William County attended the second annual event on Oct. 25 at the Johnson Center on the Fairfax Campus to feel more supported as they expressed themselves about how schools should change.

“Something that’s popular in schools and research is this idea of a sense of belonging having an effect on learning and achievement academically,” said Call-Cummings, who cofounded Courageous Conversations with Osbourn Park teacher LeAnne Beardsley. “If a student who feels disconnected connects in ways that are meaningful to that kid, there might be other [positive] effects that aren’t strictly academic.”

Students began their day brainstorming what needs to change for their voices to be heard and enact change. After lunch, they attended multimodal arts-based workshops led by Mason CEHD students to creatively speak out on pressing topics including bullying, immigration, racism, gun violence and mental health.

High school students from Prince William County create a mural that celebrates the tapestry of human diversity at Courageous Conversations.

“Art is like an anchor,” said Maria Rybicki-Newman, a CEHD doctoral student who led a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop where students acted out moments of oppression and reimagined how the scenes could be remedied. “It’s this place to put those thoughts, feelings and emotions, and it helps [students] express themselves in ways that maybe they could not otherwise.”

Local artist Jessica Valoris also led students in a Courageous Conversations’ first painting workshop, where students created abstract portraits of their own cultures and a mural that “celebrates the tapestry of human diversity and what we can create together,” Valoris said.

“[Courageous Conversations] can make a difference because it gives us a way to speak out without being afraid of what our peers might say or what our teachers may feel,” said Angela, a junior from Osbourne Park High School. “[This is] the perfect place to come because they don’t judge you for what you say, there’s a lot of constructive criticism, and they teach you how to get your voice heard without putting it out in the wrong way.”

The project has long-term benefits.

“[The students] are developing leadership and public speaking skills,” said Call-Cummings. “It’s not just about creating some great art—it’s about building new skills, like community organizing, that they’ll carry forward in their lives.”

The event concluded with a public performance and exhibit showcasing the students’ Theatre of the Oppressed skits, and their written and visual art.