Equity and Access Cafe stimulates conversation at high school

Students gather at Jackson Hole High School's "Equity and Access Cafe," a snack area meant to stimulate conversation through the use of art and photographs. Principal Scott Crisp said school officials hope the art will "make people think." (Photo by Bradly J. Boner, Jackson Hole News&Guide)

JACKSON — Of the many changes Jackson Hole High School halls have undergone in the past couple of years, one of the most noticeable was unveiled last week.

The Equity and Access Cafe sits on the second floor of the high school in an area that once held banks of lockers. Now the space has bright walls, long, tall tables with high chairs, a food service counter for snacks and an arrangement of wall hangings meant to stimulate student thought about equity, both in education and in broader society.

“One of the fundamental goals of that space was when a kid or a staff member or community member walks through that space, they’re confronted with visual images, they hear an audio speaker system we set up or they’re able to see multimedia images on one wall,” Principal Scott Crisp said. “We want the images to make people think.”

Some of the pictures show seminal moments in the ongoing struggle for equality in the United States. Four photographs curated from the Southern Poverty Law Center show images from the Civil Rights movement, including protestors marching, a sit-in and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a jail cell.

Maps adorn a second wall, but they are decidedly nontraditional. White lines that represent major highways and streets crisscross the canvas, with several colored dots spread throughout them. What might be dismissed as abstract pointillism is in reality a display of the way population dynamics function in some of America’s biggest cities.

The maps show Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C., with each color representing a major racial population demographic. Regions of yellow, red and blue lie adjacent to each other, but they rarely blend together, revealing how segregated races are, even in America’s largest, most diverse metropolises.

“Those are really impactful and kind of make you stop and think about what they’re actually telling you,” freshman Jana Turner said.

When he had them made, Crisp removed identifying characteristics from the maps like the city and street names. Because students know the intention of the maps, they may be stimulated to have conversations about racial segregation without preconceived notions about the cities.

“The goal there is you just have kids look at them,” Crisp said, “and go, ‘Well, why is that? What causes that? What are the impacts, the pros and cons?’”

The Equity and Access Cafe is evidence of Crisp’s passion for updating the school to reflect modern educational needs. As principal of a school with a growing student population, he is a strong advocate of creating efficiencies that use space most effectively. With learning materials transitioning from analog to digital, lockers that were once necessary to house stacks of textbooks can be removed.

However, the impetus for the cafe was not a theoretical need for space to inspire conversation. Instead, it came from the students.

Last year Crisp and the high school teachers hosted two events they called “Food for Thought,” schoolwide discussions that included kids from each grade talking in small groups with facilitators from the community about weighty ideas like equity and inclusivity. The conversations were intended to create a culture in the school that focused on increasing students’ sense of belonging.

Teachers and administrators chose some of the students, and others volunteered because of an interest in creating such a culture. Their ensuing conversations revealed a depth of empathy and discernment in the student population.

“What came out of those was a lot of things,” Crisp said. “A lot of discussions on race, a lot of discussions on ethnicity, a lot of discussions on socioeconomic standing, a lot of discussions on what students and educators can do to make kids and staff feel more connected to being at school.”

To go along with the opening of the cafe Jan. 14, the school hosted another Food for Thought discussion, this one focused on taking other people’s perspectives.

“It was a lot about listening to everyone else’s experiences and putting that in perspective of how they’re doing today,” senior Kyle Scholtens said.

A third set of wall hangings ties directly in with the students’ discussions. The posters give students direct ideas for how to understand another person’s perspective and phrases to use when they perceive injustice is occurring.

Scholtens and his senior peer Julian Web appreciated the discussion, though they feel the tight-knit nature of their class creates an inherently empathetic culture.

“I definitely think as people get older in the high school,” Web said, “it appears that the trend is that, you know, people are more inclusive and more understanding.”

Turner agreed that shared experience is an important component of creating culture. Even though she and the seniors said the freshman class as a whole might not be as close as some of the older classes, Turner said she and her peers in the dual immersion program, who have been in class together since kindergarten, had a inclusive nature similar to the senior class.

Crisp’s intent in creating the Equity and Access Cafe is that the space can create that kind of culture more quickly than it might develop naturally. Research supports that hope: A 2018 Americans for the Arts survey found 70% of people enjoyed the arts in nontraditional venues, a category the cafe certainly falls into.

That survey also found 73% of Americans think art helps them understand other cultures better. Crisp and his fellow administrators hope the cafe has that effect on students, though the principal was adamant that he doesn’t want the space to espouse any political persuasion.

“I think that was very intentional for us is to have images that allow kids to look at it,” Crisp said, “and come away with their own interpretation still around the topic of equity and access.”

Despite the lofty ambitions for the Equity and Access Cafe, it is, at its core, a place for students to congregate. They can meet for lunch there, stop to grab a snack or do homework during a free period.

That’s how its function as an actual cafe helps. Smoothies, juices and other healthy snacks are available for just a couple of bucks, and teachers staff it during the longer midmorning break students have between classes.

Being able to eat healthy snacks between breakfast and lunch helps students perform better in school. Studies have found students who lack access to fruits and vegetables score lower on tests than their peers who eat better, making nutrition an inherent issue when considering educational equity.

Scholtens and Web say the design of the cafe will likely achieve its aim, even though discussion like Food for Thought won’t happen every day. Even simply as a space for students to do homework, the goal of bringing educational equity to the fore is achieved.

“It’s something that’s always going to be in the back of your head when you’re out there,” Web said. “So you’ll be thinking about it a lot more so you’ll maybe, like, unconsciously try to be more inclusive and everything like that while you’re just hanging out or studying.”

Scholtens agreed, and he sees another aspect of the cafe that might make it even more of a melting pot.

“Since it’s a slightly smaller space,” he said, “I think that while you’re studying or hanging out, you’ll be forced to sit with people that you don’t usually interact with.”