The Newport Harbor High School Inclusion Council held its inaugural gender empowerment summit last weekend — bringing together about 30 students of varying grade levels for a day of education, affirmation and celebration of all genders and identities.
Gwendolyn Gaylord, one of three teachers at Newport Harbor, along with Marcos Torres and Alex Goodman, who were involved with organizing the event, said Saturday’s gathering at the Heartfelt Play Studio in Costa Mesa emerged from a desire to “empower students both on and off campus.” It also was the first event celebrating gender that the group has held since it was founded in the 2015-16 school year.
“So many times, students, especially students of minority voices, are not encouraged to perform — or not given as many opportunities to — as their peers,” Gaylord said. “So we wanted to seek out students like women, like members of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community, who might not have been given as much professional encouragement or are sometimes expected to meet outdated or impossible standards of beauty.”
The goal, she said, was to help students practice self-love and learn to accept one another to “help them get a leg up when it comes to practical tasks like finding a job, looking for a career that they’re passionate about and empowering them to feel capable of getting a job in whatever field they choose.”
“What we’re trying to instill in all our students is that there’s value in that foundation to never be ashamed of who you are, where you come from, what your race, country of origin [or] ethnicity may be,” said Newport Harbor Principal Sean Boulton.
The event included a career panel with speakers Candace Corte, an FBI special agent; Dr. Gigi Kroll, an ob-gyn at Hoag Hospital; and Diana Teran, an attorney.
Later, students worked on a collaborative art project — led by Heartfelt Play Studio owner Gabrielle Carey McLean — that eventually will be displayed on Newport Harbor’s campus.
For the project, participants were asked to write words or draw images on two 39-by-94-inch canvases to represent the barriers they have faced.
Then they illustrated the best versions of themselves on separate 10-by-10-inch squares of material. McLean said she would later superimpose those over the larger canvases to hide the “barriers” that students wrote.
The two canvases could be placed together to look like a single work of art, McLean said, or they could be hung separately.
The goal is to create a new art piece with every subsequent summit, McLean said.
Newport Harbor senior Issy Morris, who is part of the Inclusion Council and helped create the event, expressed surprise and joy at how it turned out.
“[Art] really is a way for people to come out of their shell,” Morris said. “High school is a really hard time for people. It’s where the most insecurities come out. We’re all going through puberty and it’s about self-discovery.
“So having summits and things like this that can bring students together and make them feel safe and comfortable in their own bodies, with themselves — it’s really helpful … for mental and physical growth as people.”
Newport Harbor junior Maread McLaughlin said she learned about the event from Gaylord and that she enjoyed the panelists and “seeing such strong women … like that who have broken barriers and show you that you can do anything … seeing the actual product, what really happens when you try to break boundaries and that it is possible.”
Gaylord said she plans to hold the summit again next year and make “it even more inclusive of and accessible to underrepresented students.”
It’s too early to say when or where it will be held, she said.
This article was originally published at 10:55 a.m. and was later updated with additional information.