Compositive: At Bricolage, nurturing heart through empathy and identity

Alan Gottlieb, Compositive Staff

At Bricolage no one shies away from honest talk about race, privilege, and inequities. Kids who attend Bricolage will not graduate believing the world is colorblind.

On a rainy spring morning, all 16 of the African American girls who attend Bricolage Academy, grades K-3, filed into a classroom for a graduation ceremony.


They sat in two rows, facing their mothers or female guardians, who sat backs to the blackboard.


The girls had been spending lunch and recess periods in the classroom with African American women, learning what it means to be a “queen:” a proud, upstanding, “beautiful girl of color.”


Each girl stood and read a short letter about what she had learned from the class, and how it had changed her.


“I learned not to be a bystander but to be an upstander,” one girl said.


“People may be mean to me because I am a person of color, but I will not let it bother me,” another said.


At Bricolage, such moments are the norm. From Founder Josh Densen through the entire staff, no one shies away from honest talk about race, privilege, and inequities. Kids who attend Bricolage will not graduate believing the world is colorblind.


Rather, they’ll see the world as a wonderfully diverse place, but one in which diversity is not universally celebrated or appreciated.


“We aspire to anti-racist, inclusive, equitable practices at all levels – parents, staff, students,” said Densen, who openly describes himself as an upper-middle-class white man.


“We don’t see diversity as an end in itself because that perpetuates a racist power structure that favors white people,” he said. True diversity promotes equity in the truest sense, Densen said. This means the norm isn’t kids behaving like nice little middle-class white kids. It means celebrating diversity as it truly exists.


Diversity amplifies empathy, Densen said, and empathy is one of the traits Bricolage aims to develop in its students.


And there’s more than one reason to promote empathy. Not only does it make people more compassionate and tolerant, it also will serve them well in the rapidly changing world of work, where people will increasingly need to work in teams, with people from all races and backgrounds.


Densen works hard to market Bricolage to families of color. White families already flock top the school: it’s one of the few public schools in New Orleans that has “buzz” among white families because of its strong academics and integrated student body.


When talking to families, Densen said, “I sell equity, empathy, and innovation. I don’t say ‘come here because we are so diverse.’ I say come because we are doing all these great things, and we can only do them because we are so diverse.”


Every child at Bricolage has a personalized learning plan, and one component of the plan is social-emotional learning goals.


Echoing one of the girls in the graduation ceremony, Densen said a Bricolage student should come to understand that life is “you as a protagonist, not a bystander.”    

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