Despite tensions in the current climate, society continually strives to embrace diversity. Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, CO, prides itself on celebrating diversity, and in doing so, students and staff are able to form close bonds and become a family. Subsequently, our diversity can also be a breeding ground for microaggressions—something we are working to fight against every day.

A microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). These go beyond race and can include gender, disabilities, sexual orientation, the car you drive, and even the clothes you wear. Microaggressions occur often out of misinformation and a lack of knowledge, and they can leave a lasting impact.

People tend to hesitate when talking about microaggressions because they fall on the same spectrum as prejudices and discrimination, but we can help prevent prejudice and discrimination by addressing microaggressions head on. No one wants to feel like they are discriminatory, and through education and awareness about microaggressions, people will feel more comfortable having discussions because they will understand that there is a difference between a microaggression and discrimination.

Another distinction that needs to be made is between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is having all of the different pieces—in this case, individual students with distinct personalities, backgrounds, and interests—next to each other. Inclusion is when we’re able to put those pieces together to create something new and greater. When people are more inclusive, it is easier for people to go to one another and identify a problem and a solution. Starting the conversation about microaggressions is the first step toward an inclusive community.

The “That’s Not What I Meant” campaign is working to stop the use of microaggressions within the walls of Smoky Hill and beyond. This began with two girls who noticed all of the little hurtful comments that are said between classes, during lunch, even between friends. We wanted to bring these comments out in the open as a way to address, stop, and prevent microaggressions from spreading. We have been able to partner with our school’s Diversity Leadership Team to hold teacher training and presentations and spread more awareness.

With help from AT&T, a Fortune 500 company that focuses on creating a loving environment within its diverse workplace and in its local communities, this campaign can grow exponentially and become one of great change. We were able meet with employees and talk about what they experience in the real world and the workforce. We also had the opportunity to meet with the vice president of AT&T, and it was amazing to see how someone so high in power was able to relate to us—it solidified that there really was a problem outside of high school. We sent a survey to school and business sectors, and the results revealed that once people are given a definition about microaggressions, they were able to identify times when they either expressed one or experienced one. As people come to understand the meaning of a microaggression, it opens up doors for greater discussion.

As of right now, we have an Instagram account (@thatsnotwhat_i_meant) that sends posts that talk about microaggressions. We’ve recently started adding people’s stories about a time where they felt like people were making the wrong assumptions about them and the impact that the program had on them. We also took this campaign to the DECA (formerly Distributive Education Clubs of America) state competition this past February and have written an 18-page informational manual. At the DECA state competition, we were able to qualify for finals, but unfortunately did not make it to nationals. Despite this, we were able to see the impact that our project had not only on our judges, but on those who heard our message.

We need further support from the community to take this campaign as far as it will go, hopefully nationwide or even global. Those who work on this campaign want to make an impact, no matter how small, by taking an already loving community and making it one of greater understanding. People can help by just talking about microaggressions in their schools, workplaces, communities, and more. Our main goal with this campaign is to spread the word about microaggressions, and we believe that once there is enough knowledge about this issue, we can embody a truly inclusive and kind environment.

Kimberly Marfo is a 12th-grade student at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, CO.

Sidebar: Start Your Own Campaign

There are many ways to start your own “That’s Not What I Meant” campaign or a similar program at your school. Don’t feel discouraged, and be sure to challenge yourself. Make sure you do it because you want to, and not because you feel like you have to. Here are some steps you can follow if you want to start a campaign of your own.

  1. Make a Plan
    • Is there a problem in that area that you can identify and solve?
    • Who are the people affected, and in what way are they affected?
    • Is the environment affected?
    • Is this a common problem locally, nationally, globally?
    • What are some viable solutions?
    • How will you implement them?
  2. Find a Sponsor
    • Talk to a teacher, counselor, etc.
    • Find someone who has time (people always want to help, but they may not have enough time to fully commit to sponsoring you).
    • Find someone who has a passion for your campaign.
  3. Start a Conversation
    • Take ideas to your school’s administration (superintendent, principal, vice principal, etc.).
    • Share your idea(s) with friends and family.
    • Reach out to the community.
  4. Organize
    • Spread your message and the importance of solving the problem.
    • Create and organize events with help from your sponsor(s), administration, classmates, etc. (It’s perfectly OK to start small.)
    • Promote the events through posters, class competitions, etc.
    • Try to involve the entire community.
  5. Branch Out
    • Reach out to a local company or business, especially those that have a reputation for service or believe in your cause (AT&T supported diversity, therefore they appreciated our campaign and were eager to help).
    • Get in contact with someone from the organization, or someone with a connection.
    • Plan a visit to talk to employees about their experiences and get input/suggestions on your idea(s).
    • Connect back to your school and community.
  6. Have Fun
    • Only do something you absolutely love and care about. Otherwise, you will not enjoy it and your campaign will not be as successful as possible.