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Civilizing civics: How Mayfield girls are becoming informed participants in our democracy

In this election season, in which the public debate has been unusually contentious, Mayfield students have been finding ways to sort through the noise. This doesn’t mean they are disengaged in the issues of the day—far from it! This generation of students is proving to be more civic-minded than any class in recent memory. And, grounded in Holy Child goals, these young women have been developing tools for better discernment and their own empowerment.
Dean of Faculty Tina Zapata has been teaching US Government classes to high school students since 2006, and though she changes up the material every year, the early days of the course are always the same. “I ask the students to write me a letter of introduction at the beginning of the year,” she says. “Some of them respond that the government seems intimidating for them” or that politics “is out of their reach.” 

Ms. Zapata encourages a curious, nimble mindset. “I explain to the students the importance of civil political discourse and the importance of both contributing to the discussion and listening.” She emphasizes listening because very often the best lessons are learned from people who disagree with you. Ms. Zapata lays out her motivation in her approach clearly: “I want them to learn that their voices matter and the significance of their political participation in the system, especially as young women.” 

Sophia Labrador ’21 explains that one of the main reasons she enrolled in US Government was to find her power as an active citizen, saying, ”Because 2020 is a presidential election year, I wanted to take this class because I knew that there would be a lot of conversation about candidates and elections, and I wanted to better understand the discussions around me.” 

In a recent US Government class, Ms. Zapata randomly assigned her students to camps, either for or against the use of the electoral college in the presidential election. Students moved into online break-out rooms to hone their points for an in-class debate. When the class reconvened, these seniors were ready to argue their opposing cases, with Ms. Zapata acting as an impartial moderator. They asked nuanced questions, aired thoughtful opinions, and made concluding arguments. Then Mrs. Zapata opened the floor for discussion. Free of their assigned debate teams, students finally had an opportunity to express their honest personal assessments and concerns.

Ellery Hotchkis ’21 spoke up, suggesting “this was a difficult conversation to have” because there was plenty of evidence to “argue for either side and find its flaws.” And Adrianna Greenup ’21, who only moments earlier had made a persuasive closing argument for the electoral college, expressed some of her own personal wariness of the institution. However she had no complaints about the forum itself. “The thing about this class, it makes it easy to bridge the divide,” says Adrianna, adding that, “Ms. Zapata allows for a safe and comfortable space for everyone to express their views.” 

US Government classes are not the only places girls are engaging in the political process either. There is also the Vocal Voters Club at Mayfield. Though most high school students aren’t eligible to vote yet, this club works with The Civics Center, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, helping pre-register teens so they are ready to vote on their 18th birthday. Co-heads Sofia Olona ’23 and Lucia Avila ’22 are quick to point out, “We consider ourselves non-partisan,” adding that “many issues our world is facing today are not a matter of Democrat vs Republican.” Sofia and Lucia sincerely hope that their club gives Mayfield students “an opportunity to voice their opinions,” because “our world is too complicated to make these issues black and white.”

It’s more than likely that the elections are bound to be a source of stress and a topic of discussion among the students right now, so Abby Shaw, Dean of Students, and Ms. Zapata recorded a discussion that played during the advisory period, six days before the election. Ms. Shaw and Ms. Zapata shared some overall ideas, including resources from uscourts.gov, on the topic of “How to engage in civil discourse.” A few reminders: Tell the truth and rely on facts. Give equal time to opposing opinions. Be considerate and attentive of the other person’s point of view. And every advisory group was given time to reflect on their video, and ample time to discuss these issues together.

In the video, Ms. Shaw emphasized engaging with Cornelia Connelly’s enduring mission when interacting on sensitive issues, especially focusing on Holy Child Goals 4 (work for Christian principles of justice, peace, and compassion in every facet of life) and Goal 5 (create a learning climate based on trust and reverence for the dignity and uniqueness of each person). Ms. Shaw spent some time talking about social media, and how a careless comment there can be wounding. She suggested that students “keep these [Holy Child] goals in our hearts” because “Mayfield expects us all, whether we are remote or together, to treat each other with dignity and respect.”

Erica Vasquez ’21, a student in Ms. Zapata’s US Government class, makes it clear that “Mayfield students—and more broadly my generation—have been very active with political issues.” And she has nothing but praise for Ms. Zapata for “keeping the class unbiased,” which allows students “to learn more about the thought process of both sides and more importantly...able to form our own opinions.”

As tensions abound in public arenas, Mayfield girls are uniquely equipped with Holy Child guiding principles and, with compassion and reverence at the forefront of any discussion, the emphasis is kept on what unifies us as a community of love and faith. Acknowledging the civic strength of listening, even to an unpopular idea, Ms. Zapata adds that, ”everyone comes from a different background... so they may see the situation differently.” And she offers the timeless advice that it is okay to “agree to disagree.”  

In so many ways, Mayfield students are already displaying a strength lacking in more adult forums—taking at least one step forward to civilizing civics.
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.