2013 Diversity Conference

For the past 11 years, Dwight-Englewood has attended two annual diversity conferences hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS): the People of Color Conference (PoCC) and the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). Led by Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs Clinton Carbon, a veteran participant of the program and one of the first five teachers from our school to go to PoCC in 2002, the group of students and faculty members who attend the concurrent conferences varies year to year, as they are chosen by application. The 2013 crew, however, was particularly unique, with several returning attendees, a few First Years and even a former SDLC participant who worked as an SDLC faculty member in college but was a first-year PoCC attendee. These six faculty members and six students traveled in early December to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, MD, for the 26th NAIS PoCC, “The Capital’s Mosaic: Independent School Leaders Building an Interconnected World,” and the 20th NAIS SDLC, “Foresight is 20/20: Capitalizing on Our United State.”

Held in a different city each year, which thus inspires the themes of the conferences, PoCC and SDLC can only be described as “2½ days of intensive training and discussion on topics of diversity and social justice,” according to Carbon. As for the conferences themselves, Carbon explained: “The purpose of POCC is a conference by and for people of color and inclusive of all to understand their roles in advancing equity and justice around racial and ethnic identity. The conference celebrates, supports and sustains people of color in independent schools with programming, sanctuary and networking opportunities. SDLC is an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural training gathering of upper school students from around the country that focuses on self-reflection, allyship and community building through an appreciation for one’s own identity.”

The Washington, D.C., area provided a natural backdrop and historically-charged setting for the conferences, influenced by the culturally diverse populace of Maryland, Virginia and our nation’s capital. Indeed, as mentioned in the PoCC Local Committee Co-Chair Welcome, “We are a nation of many peoples, and our conference this year is intended to make us all aware of the richness in our diversity and how we can celebrate and take pride in the fact that every individual is part of building a strong nation.”

Aside from the 60 workshops for the choosing during its three workshop blocks, PoCC also offered featured speakers and four affinity group sessions, during which participants gathered by racial/ethnic and gender identity for deeper exploration. No pre-registration was required for any workshop or session, so participants were able to come and go as they pleased – and with the myriad workshops given on such topics as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: 7½ Critical Tips for Women Seeking Leadership Positions” to “Maintaining Your Culture and Identity within the Culture of Your Independent School,” attendees were hard-pressed not to drop into multiple workshops within the 75-minute blocks.

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the SDLC Leadership Team’s Welcome acknowledged that, “In hindsight, we should have seen from the very beginning the positive power of young people collected and committed for good. But now, as our theme for the 20th annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference states, ‘Foresight is 20/20,’ and it is with this in mind that we will continue the awesome task of ‘Capitalizing on Our United State.”

Nearly 1,500 students from across the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and numerous island nations attended SDLC, whose daily schedule was jam-packed, from 8 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. the first day and 11:30 p.m. the second day. Students were shuffled from one session to another based on the family groups into which they were assigned. Rarely did the students interact with their chaperone – Director of Student Activities Maya Gunaseharan ‘08, who also attended SDLC twice as a student, taught at SDLC twice, and was a first-time PoCC attendee – let alone the adults from their school who were attending PoCC, which is why Carbon added a nightly debrief that was mandatory for the students but optional for the D-E faculty members.

Naturally, the debrief after the first day was more engaging than the second night’s, as the students had a longer second day that concluded with a Dance. While our six students – Shereen Al-Sawwaf ‘15, Wendy Gonzalez ‘15, Nigel Lassiter ‘14, Gregory McDowell ‘16, Leslie Moreaux ‘16 and Kira Tsougarakis ‘14 – were both physically and mentally exhausted that first day, they were troopers when it came to sharing their sentiments and putting their day into perspective. They spoke of one exercise that required them to identify themselves as honestly as possible in front of the entire group by standing when a particular identifier – race, gender or religion – was called out; then, after being assigned into small groups, they discussed whether or not they felt comfortable enough to be honest about their participation in the exercise. The general consensus was that they didn’t feel comfortable, but they did feel safe enough to participate;that SDLC participants should make themselves uncomfortable, because only through discomfort does one find the truths of one’s self.

Along this line, issues of appearance came up, particularly skin tone – how lighter skin in any culture usually denotes a higher class – and hairstyles: natural/curly vs. styled/straight. The kids then voiced that America’s problem is its lost culture and heritage, having stripped away those of its varied inhabitants. This has also transpired at D-E, where students can readily claim, “I have no culture.” However, the six students did say that the school has come a long way in fostering diversity acceptance and providing a sense of maturity and exposure in recent years, thanks in part to the programming offered separately by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and cultural diversity club, INSPIRE (Introducing New Solutions to Promote Integrity & Respect Everywhere).

D-E inspired SDLC leaders, like Nigel, to step up to the plate and unofficially lead this contingent of D-E students. He was placed with other fellow returnees in the Diversity 201 family group, which was devoid of peer facilitators and instead, as he described it, “making our own conclusions and a dialogue with ourselves.” The main Diversity 201 activity was “racial chess,” where chess pieces represented people of different races and class, and both sides had blacks and whites working together. This particular game of chess didn’t actually pit Black vs. White; instead, as Nigel explained it, “The game showed the struggle between Justice vs. Racism, Right vs. Wrong.”

After hearing Nigel describe this game, 11-year attendee and Upper School Visual Arts faculty member Marisol Diaz acknowledged that we live in a “socio-chromatic society; within our own families in the U.S., that’s how we see things, black and white. How do you survive the landscape in which you’re placed?”

Speaking of building unity, there were only two general sessions during which the entire PoCC and SDLC truly came together: the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, which each featured noteworthy speakers: Daniel Hernandez, Jr., former Intern for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was featured in the Opening Ceremony while NPR’s “Tell Me More” host Michel Martin spoke in the Closing Ceremony. Spoken word poet and LGBT rights activist Staceyann Chin was SDLC’s keynote speaker, as well as a featured speaker for a PoCC workshop. Other notable PoCC speakers included artist Tak Toyoshima; professor and transgender/civil rights activist Marisa Richmond; and author & MIT Creative Writing Professor Junot Díaz, who spoke so passionately and realistically that his words resonated with all in attendance:

“Any way I can get a kid to be excited about their future, I’ll do it. Society makes them think the future is going to get worse. They look to the horizon and see ruin.”

“We must constantly, tirelessly, always have hope, especially when people think everything has gone wrong.”

“The worse things are, the more likely there will be a stunning reversal.”

“Fight all the way down. Hope against hope, but fight all the way down.”

On Saturday, PoCC and SDLC also intersected on a smaller, more intimate scale for the final two sessions of the conferences. The first session was actually the fourth and final affinity group session, “An Equitable Exchange Between Students and Adults,” where SDLC participants joined groups based on their personal identification with respect to their race/ethnicity and gender, and then – stemming fresh off of their intense, emotionally-charged 36-hour SDLC experience – had discussions with adults from other schools/states/countries about identity. Finally, not only with the momentum from SDLC but also from the affinity group session, the students took the reigns for the Student-Led Adult/Student Dialogues, which were divvied by state and then by school. Our six Dwightees came prepared to lead the conversation, having previously prepped together for it – and, indeed, the D-E adult contingent, as well as the few teachers from the Morristown-Beard School who joined in (as they did not have any students at SDLC), were impressed by the students’ insightful and candid leadership. Sentiments and opinions that are normally suppressed, ignored or kept to one’s self, especially in the school environment, were shared in the safe space created by the students during the hour and a half that morning – sentiments that had been drastically changed by SDLC since the first student debrief.

The main issue at hand that was brought up was the dichotomy between D-E students and faculty regarding diversity. “We feel safe to talk with students, and vice versa; among faculty though, not so much,” said one student, and this is in part because “students are more diverse, while faculty is not. Students are ready to share, but the faculty aren’t – though this could also be a generational thing, from a culture of not sharing.”

“After-school, it becomes a lot worse since no teachers are around,” said another student. “I don’t go to teachers all the time about it. [I feel] unsafe and lost.”

In the same vein, another student offered: “When a teacher is brought in, is it effective? I’ve brought it up in person and addressed it to the dean, who just apologizes, and that’s it. Even if it’s something on social media, I tell the dean about it, but then feel guilty – that maybe I’m taking it too seriously or a certain way. I can’t ignore it anymore, but I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t be quiet anymore, but I also can’t speak up.”

That unsafe feeling is even felt during the various diversity-themed events themselves, as it is an “open floor” where they are “being judged.” This is also transferred to the parents, who feel unsafe to go to school meetings – but, “like student, like parent.”

“People jump to conclusions and question why we need to talk about diversity and why we even need diversity at school,” was another point. “If you have a strong opinion expressed, you’re shot down. You’re not allowed to express an opinion; the second you get up, people jump on you and ask why you are [expressing an opinion]. It’s unsafe if you express any strong opinion.”

Most of what was voiced by the students came as a shock and disturbance to the faculty present, especially those from D-E. One faculty member mentioned that “as adults, we don’t feel safe to address diversity either, and need to know how to be more effective; we can’t just discipline. We leave it in the room; we address it at the moment and leave it at that. The more you tell us, the more we can help. Find other people on campus who can be an advocate for you. We can’t combat it unless we know.”

“It’s the responsibility of the school to have a cultural shift, and that it can’t happen even after-school,” said another D-E faculty member. “People don’t always know the roots and why it’s offensive. Acknowledging that things are offensive and unsafe, and understanding better, will help them process more.”

“Community and diversity are two hated words,” added another faculty member. “Students throw it back at us – that diversity is pointing out students of color.”

The students were accompanied by six PoCC attendees – a brave and lucky select few who dared to explore their own vulnerabilities and blind spots in a similar fashion to SDLC, which made for a truly unforgettable and surreal experience for them. These six PoCC attendees included two First Years, while the other four had attended previous PoCCs. For the “old timers,” each conference provides the opportunity for more thought and dialogue to be shared in the realm of diversity and social justice work – and this year’s, in particular, was “the most intellectual one I’ve been to, [where I was] feeling alive but exhausted,” said six-year attendee Dr. Nikki Willis, Dean of the Class of 2017 and Upper School English teacher, during a post-conference debrief back at school one month later.

Carbon – who calls PoCC “home” as a 21-year attendee – agreed, saying that “each [conference] is [renewing] in different ways. They offer food for thought, and through the flurry of activity come new projects to infuse energy into old things.”

PoCC left Sixth Grade History teacher Ben Fleisher, a Jewish American and one of the newbies, “in a state of not knowing a lot of things. The conference was interesting, but when friends asked about it and we engage in conversations about the conference that are painfully awkward to them. I’m wrestling with a lot of conflicting information from my [white affinity] peer group.”

I also attended PoCC for the first time, and as a first-generation Chinese-Filipino American who grew up in a then-predominantly white Hackensack, I had never addressed my racial identity head-on. Having parents who immigrated from the Philippines, I was always aware of my Asian heritage, but never had any peers to relate to as a child. This even affected me in college, when there were myriad Asian student clubs I could join, but I didn’t feel Filipino or Chinese enough to join them. Now, as a staff member at D-E, I was fortunate enough to be chosen to attend PoCC and have a chance to explore my racial identity; having graduated the year D-E started sending students to SDLC, I missed my chance then, and was now jealous of the current SDLC students addressing these issues at a young age. However, as excited as I was to be at the conference, I felt lost and uneasy while moving through the workshops and affinity group sessions, of which I only attended two of the four since I wasn’t comfortable enough to even identify myself as an Asian Pacific Islander, which is exactly what I am. And aside from learning the phrases “Twinkie,” “Coconut” and “Oreo,” PoCC also helped me realize that I had been ignoring my own struggle of not being able to self-identify with an ethnic group. My lack of exposure to and embracing of diversity all these years had not instilled in me a sensitivity and awareness of it. So, not only do I have to cultivate my own cultural exposure, but also help with D-E’s continuing diversity initiatives and keep the dialogue going – so that our students learn how to navigate the murky waters that most adults fear to traverse.

Not surprisingly, D-E students felt a mixture of emotions after having had a month to process their SDLC experience. Several mentioned being able to speak up, for a change: “It’s easier to be myself than before, and I have more of an idea of who I am, so I’m not afraid of what people will think,” said one student.

“I was quiet since I didn’t know how to handle everything, but now I speak up, and I’m talking more, which feels good,” said another student. “In class, too, I’m starting to participate a little more, and it feels nice saying what I want to say.”

Another student had a slightly different reaction, admitting that “at first it was tough; I was desensitized from the things I was going through. It was tough, but I found a way to cope, and things like this [debrief] still help me; they keep pushing and giving me motivation.”

Two other students agreed that they had never really noticed how immune they were, but that SDLC made them “more aware of how potentially offensive” we can be toward each other at school, in and out of the classroom setting. SDLC even inspired one student to create a blog as an outlet.

One of these two students added that while she has always been outspoken, SDLC “brought attention to the little comments I’d have brushed off before, as I’d ignored them as part of the school culture. But now after SDLC, I’ve been saying, ‘Wait a second, did you just say that? You can’t say that.’ I have the conscience to turn around and not let it go. The first week back was horrific, but it gets better, you learn how to deal with it, that you’re a little bit a part of the change that will make it better.”

Finally, another student mentioned having obtained theability to respondto situations better, without getting emotional: “I’ll say something – before [SDLC], I’d get offended, but now I have ways to address situations without dampening the mood or making anyone feel uncomfortable. Plus, there is an active Facebook group. for SDLC students, offering food for thought – seeing the SDLC group reminds me of the experience.”

While this same student also acknowledged wanting to be warned prior to SDLC that “it is overwhelming, and you’ll see all these problems that can be very shocking and emotional,” the conference does instill in its participants the practice of “taking a minute to think of what you can do in any given situation, and paying attention to what’s around you.”

Indeed, the conferences are more of a stepping stone for the personal diversity journey of each participant, yet the intent of SDLC and PoCC has always been to take the work they do at the conferences into the fabric of their independent schools. While attendees have never been required to share their post-conference thoughts with D-E in a formal capacity, the 2013 students did offer their two cents on how to integrate their experience with the greater school community: At the end of the Student-Led Adult/Student Dialogues that Saturday morning of the conferences, the SDLC attendees stressed how fostering student-teacher relationships is key – from having students defend each other to teachers who are “not afraid to address things head-on. They should voice their opinions as it helps both the student and perpetrator.” The students then suggested that D-E should have a dedicated meeting/class, like the required 9th grade ELLTC (Essentials for Living and Learning in the 21st Century) course, to talk about how students feel and, much like group therapy sessions, have deep conversations on diversity.

 Until then, the onus is on the participants – which becomes a bigger group each year as D-E continues to send students, faculty and staff to the conferences each year – to implement change amongst those immediately in their midst. It could be standing up for a fellow student who is being slighted, to piping up when a teacher is berating another. And perhaps one day, we’ll all see some active tweaks and greater diversity initiatives at D-E, so that diversity awareness is no longer an issue. This is, of course, a universal, more macro issue that D-E has assumed as it continues to provide its students with an enhanced, well-rounded education – so much so that it is mentioned in the Mission Statement: “As a community of learners, Dwight-Englewood School strives to foster in each student a passion for life-long learning. We seek excellence, honor integrity, and embrace diversity in order to meet the challenges of a changing world and make it better.”

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