Freshmen students learn strategies to be an “Upstander”

Cassandra Gonzales, Mayfield’s Director of Justice, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (JDEI) is putting up her slide deck in the Computer Science lab on the first floor of Strub. This is a “Formation of Self” (FoS) class, often overseen by Ann Bussard, but it occasionally welcomes guest lecturers as well. One of the first slides in Ms. Gonzales’ slide deck reads: “Upstanders vs. Bystanders.” Many in the class have been exposed to the term “upstander” before, but Ms. Gonzales helps clarify for those who aren’t familiar with it. A bystander is “someone present at an event but doesn’t take part.” Conversely, an “upstander” is “a person who speaks and in support of a person or cause, particularly on behalf of someone being attacked or bullied.” 
During sophomore year at Mayfield, the idea of “upstanding” will be much more investigated across disciplines, and introducing the topic to freshmen in this way is relatively new. “FoS” classes for the freshmen year tend to focus more on study skills. It is sophomore year where students explore more aspects of justice and belonging. And sophomore theology courses are coordinated to address similar concepts concurrently, highlighting upstanding behavior in the biblical story of The Good Samaritan, for instance. 

With that in mind, why incorporate this idea in the freshmen curriculum as well? Firstly, Ms. Gonzales and Ms. Bussard have discussed the ways JDEI issues directly affect study skills, as interpersonal issues often affect ways students are able to focus, concentrate and structure their academic work. So they both agreed that students would benefit from introducing this conversation in FoS early. In addition to that, Ms. Gonzales mentions that “a few times…9th graders I talked to said they didn’t know how to talk to their friend when they said something hurtful.” It is well-established that high school is a time of complex social and interpersonal learning, so today’s upstanding session is meant to equip students with strategies to address the kind of situations that can arise in these settings. “I think it's important to learn early on, as they're building their class and their relationships,” says Ms. Gonzales. “They have four years with each other” and laying the groundwork of “respectful conversations” early can only “strengthen their bonds.”

Ms. Gonzales only has slightly longer than an hour for this upstanding course, and after a brief icebreaker, she shares the ground rules of engaging in discussions:

  • Speak for yourself (not others)
  • Respect the role of silence
  • Consider confidentiality
  • Balance speaking and listening
  • Acknowledge intent and assess impact
  • Listen to understand not to respond

At this point, Ms. Gonzales broaches the topics of “normalized” yet hurtful language. There is a lot of language that is used widely that can still be deeply harmful to people. Ms. Gonzales asks the class if anyone can think of personal examples of when they had observed problematic/inappropriate language being used.

Caroline Vega ‘25 volunteers. “I hate the word ‘whitewashed,’” when people are referring to a person's ethnic identity, she says, adding this term can be especially “hurtful to people of color.” She explains that boys from her middle school used that language casually and often, and usually as a type of insult directed at people—with little regard to the impact this language might have on others. Caroline felt this term being used in this way both stereotyped and minimized an individual’s experiences of their own identity. The class nodded in agreement, complaining that it’s not only just the language that is used sometimes, but how it is being used. Many students had experienced or witnessed people adopting other people’s accents, usually as a mocking portrayal of an individual. Everyone agreed that too was problematic, even though there were plenty of media outlets (movies. Tv shows, etc) that played that behavior up for comic effect. 

So what can an “upstander” do in situations like this? Through the class discussion and her slide show, Ms. Gonzales explains a few tactics to explore in moments like this:

  • Interrupt the language/behavior, in some way 
  • Question the person who is enacting this language/behavior, interrogating their intentions
  • Educate that person (or people) to understand why that language/behavior, is harmful to others
  • Echo good language/behavior. When an “upstander” interrupts a problematic interaction, affirm them (potentially in the presence of others), so they don’t feel alone in this action, and those who have been interrupted understand that their behavior wasn’t acceptable to other members of the community as well.

Ms. Gonzales is careful to point out that the difference between “bystanders” and “upstanders” is not so straightforward or binary. The whole point of “upstanding” is not to shame someone or “call them out” but help them understand how/why people have been wounded by their words or actions, so that ultimately all of the members of that community can be in better fellowship going forward. Upstanding is not an act of aggression but one of kinship. And Ms. Gonzales acknowledges it’s impossible to do the right thing, at the right time always. 

Maddie Squire ‘25 talks about the situations that are potentially more complicated. She says it’s one thing if “you're trying to educate or interrupt, someone your age or one of your peers” but it could be “really difficult…if it’s an adult.”

Ms. Gonzales affirms Maddie’s point and explores the complexities inherent in upstanding. There are plenty of situations where it may not be safe or appropriate to intervene, then there are always power dynamics to consider. And even if we can safely act, we may not always have enough confidence or composure to act in real time. Ms. Gonzales asks people to be gentle with themselves, but the whole point of being exposed to these concepts and strategies ahead of time is to make it easier to tackle challenges in the future.

After discussing a variety of experiences, strategies and approaches, the class is given a chance to role play: “What would you do?” And the role playing exercises explore situations from everything like people who are littering on campus to people using careless language at someone else’s expense.

A lot of the conversation deals with finding nuanced tactics to broach sensitive conversations. Students learn ways to approach a friend, someone you know didn’t mean to offend, but hurt you nonetheless. Can you diffuse the situation in some way without harming them in the process too? Lulu Stolpe ‘25 suggests, “I might make a joke!” Ms. Gonzales agrees, there are definitely moments when this tactic can draw important attention to the issue, without feeling like a confrontation. Although this tactic can’t be appropriate in all situations, people tend to react better when humor is involved, so this more playful interruption might make someone aware of how foolish their problematic behavior/language might appear to others, thereby stopping them from doing/saying that again.

Sometimes just improving someone’s language in an exchange can completely improve the dynamic for the better. Mackenzie Younker ‘25 says there’s a difference between someone saying something “to be rude or mean, or somebody who just doesn’t know,” so it’s important to appreciate the context. But Mackenzie is careful to point out that some things aren’t just resolved by using more sensitive language. If the entire purpose of the comment is meant to be critical and unkind, “it just shouldn’t be said at all.”

After a highly engaged class, several students remarked on how useful the short introduction to upstanding was for them. Lulu described her slight apprehension about the topic before the session began, but went on to say, “I'm really glad that I learned about this, especially while we are entering high school and meeting new people.” Caroline shared a similar enthusiasm for the topic.” I'm glad that everyone had to learn about being an ‘upstander.’ because it is valuable information…it's good that we all had training. “

When it comes to “upstanding,” Ms. Gonzales stays firmly rooted in Holy Child mission and goals. “I want students to know that…(the JDEI department) is here as a resource, they can come and talk to us, and we can help them come up with a plan or help them with some strategies,” she says. She reminds students there are many ways to nurture the tools of constructive dialogues like Student Diversity Council, affinity groups, and that the JDEI office is always a place for listening and learning as well. Ms. Gonzales says, “I think the main thing is that I want students to know that there's always room for growth” as we continue to nurture our Mayfield family as “a community of love.”
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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.