Indy 500-Inspired NAIS Diversity Conferences 2014

In early December, more than 3,800 attendees gathered in Indianapolis for the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference (PoCC) and Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). These conferences help students, faculty, staff, parents and trustees of independent schools to embrace the diverse perspectives and leverage ways in which to promote diversity at their schools. As is always the case, the themes of PoCC and SDLC reflect the location in which the conferences are held – as Indianapolis is best known for the Indianapolis 500 car race, the 27th PoCC’s was entitled “Pit Stops and Victory Laps: Going the Distance, Driving Change, Leading the Race toward Equity and Excellence”; the 21st SDLC’s was “Leadership at the Wheel: Riding at the Speed of Acceptance.”

The nature of the conferences is to run simultaneously, but separately, except for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, as well as two combined sessions on the third day, the second of which is student-led. This was made possible by having PoCC at the JW Marriott Indianapolis, while SDLC was held in the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown; both are conveniently conjoined by a Skywalk.

D-E’s 15 delegates of seven faculty/staff and eight students flew from Newark and arrived in Circle City Wednesday night to prepare for the three-day conference. It began early Thursday morning, Dec. 4, and ended shortly after 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 6. The conferences could not be more timely as the nation is at a tumultuous crossroads following the recent deaths of, and verdicts concerning, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Day 1

The Opening Ceremonies featured keynote speaker Michael Eric Dyson, author and professor of sociology at Georgetown University. Dr. Dyson even gave a shoutout to his student Debbie Rivera ‘11, a member of this year’s SDLC faculty for the first time since attending SDLC herself as a Dwightee. In his speech on “Race, Racism, and Race Relations in America,” Dyson encouraged the crowd to “make [the future] world safer for democracy… Work hard here, and be a vehicle for the energy. Open your mouth and be brave. Recognize the humanity of everyone who exists and the right for everyone to breathe.”

Then, the students were divided into family groups, named after famous racecar drivers, and led by the SDLC faculty to the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown. PoCC participants took part in a variety of workshops of their choosing. In “Diversity in Our Schools,” participants were first asked to jot down on posters how their schools address diversity. From there, the presenters – which happened to be two of the PoCC local committee co-chairs, Terri Wallace and Lisa Pryor of Indianapolis’ Orchard School – discussed how there is “lots of talk but little follow-up” at many schools. They then offered the ways in which the Orchard School incorporates diversity learning: Lesson plans, classroom integration, moving from theory to practice, having diversity everywhere in a language that everyone knows, and techniques for overcoming roadblocks.

Another workshop, “Blurring the Lines: The Role of Schools in Managing Social Media,” discussed the ways in which using “technology as a means of communication has blurred the lines between students’ personal and school life,” yet most schools do not have guidelines on how to distinguish the two. Montclair Kimberley Academy’s Head of Middle School Randy Kleinman and Middle School Dean of Students Maria Arellano shared four case studies of actual scenarios where students’ enrollment were jeopardized by their use of social media. Participants were then put into small groups to strategize results – in hopes of getting the wheels turning in participants’ minds to bring solutions back to their individual schools.

Later that day, PoCC keynote speaker Maysoon Zayid, a comedian/actress from Cliffside Park, spoke on how – despite being a woman, Muslim and having cerebral palsy – she is “completely aware of how privileged I am, and so should you.” She ended her talk on “Growing Up Muslim in America” by advising participants to “help students find their faith and their place, … their story. Teach them to say no to violence against women and each other… No to being silenced, as [their] voice is the weapon to inequality.”

That evening, our seven students – Joel Lee ‘17, Arlene Mendez ‘17, Isaiah Pean ‘17, Savannah DiGiovanni ‘16, Michelle Rowicki ‘16, Jennifer de los Santos ‘15, Miranda Duster ‘15 and Yanal Matari ‘15 – gathered for the first of two nightly debriefs at Office of Multicultural Affairs Director Clinton Carbon’s room. The adults of the trip – SDLC chaperone Terecille Basa-Ong ‘03, director of Ethics Joseph Murphy, co-director of College Counseling Tasha Toran, Visual Arts faculty member Marisol Diaz, Upper School English teacher Diane Christian, and fellow first-timer Director of Summer Connections and Upper School math teacher Shakeh Tashjian – also sat in on the debrief, along with Debbie and fellow SDLC alumna and 2015 faculty member, D-E’s Director of Student Activities Maya Gunaseharan ‘08. Editor’s Note: The discussions in these debriefs are generally kept confidential, so the quotes provided here are carefully selected notions shared by the collective group.

“The kids who should be here aren’t here,” said one student, who added that SDLC was a safe space where students could “ask the questions you want to ask.”

However, because it was a place meant to bring out the vulnerabilities of students, those of mixed races mentioned how the dichotomy between their ethnicities were exacerbated throughout the first day of SDLC. “One side [is considered] prettier than the other,” said one student. Another reflected on the day by saying, “I don’t know what I identify myself as. I always… just say [Hispanic], not white [Hispanic] or black [Hispanic]. So do I conform to white or black? I’m always so confident, but in this moment, who am I now?”

That’s when Ms. Diaz assured the students to “stand your ground and be whatever you want to be… The power [of self-definition] is yours and no one else’s.”

Another student brought up how wonderful it was to finally feel comfortable without any precedence or reason – just for being at SDLC. “They didn’t know me, but liked me. There was no judgment; it was so nice… I felt so warm and welcomed.”

The final point from the first day was made through one student’s experience with a class/race exercise – it “made me realize and appreciate how very privileged I am.” The other seven students agreed.

Day 2

The second day of PoCC/SDLC included various keynote speakers for both conferences. The students were addressed by Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the Reverend Oliver L. Brown who sued the Board of Education of Topeka in the famous Brown vs. Board of Education 1954 lawsuit that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Meanwhile, PoCC attendees heard psychologist and multicultural scholar Derald Wing Sue speak on microaggressions during the morning General Session, which were further addressed in a ticket-only Master Class with Dr. Sue immediately following. Dr. Sue provided a wealth of information for the several hundred participants lucky enough to score a ticket, including numerous scenarios on “Race Talk” – “dialogues and conversations about race that touch upon topics of race, racism, ‘whiteness’ and white privilege” – and strategies to facilitate these discussions in our own schools and environments.

“We are in a struggle and battle concerning the racial reality of America,” said Dr. Sue. “It’s a systemic situation, so how do we address it? The only way we can get rid of these biases is if we aim our efforts to PreK-12 [students] through a multicultural curriculum – [provide a] teaching and experiential process to nip it in the bud. Many things are important here, but the key element is to make the invisible visible.”

In the evening PoCC General Session, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas gave a powerful account of his personal journey – from outing himself first as a gay Filipino American and then his status as an undocumented immigrant – and why he chose to put himself on the line: “I outed myself not to disrupt, but to find the very definition of what constitutes being ‘American,’” he said. “The difference between you and me is that I just don’t have pieces of papers.”

Being in a room full of educators, Jose credited the two at his Bay Area high school who insisted he beat the system and stay sans papers. “There’s a moment in every childhood where a door opens and lets the future in,” he said. “If it weren’t for my teachers … I wouldn’t have opened any doors.”

SDLC capped off its second day with a student dance following a full day of discussion. The students were emotionally drained by the time the day was over, and at that night’s debrief, they expressed how “particularly intense” the day had been as there was an “urgency” to share their personal stories during the Open Mic session, and “kids kept breaking down.” It’s no surprise that the Open Mic was their favorite part of SDLC, thanks to the honesty and comfort level amongst all 1,620 students, which is why the stories kept coming. Others shared how we “should not see color, but respect the colors,” and ultimately how supported they felt at SDLC.

Day 3

The third day had the students mixed in with the adults, first for affinity groups by race/ethnicity and gender, then by region/state. In the student-led dialogues, D-E was grouped with Montclair Kimberley Academy (MKA) and Princeton Day School (PDS), and each school’s student contingent led the entire group of adults in thought-provoking exercises. MKA had the adults play Charades by creating six-second Vine videos of a hashtag, with the other adults guessing the hashtag – such as #AllLivesMatter and #WhitePrivilege. PDS led a fishbowl exercise where faculty members, divided by gender, listened in on each others’ conversations about exclusion, safety and sexual identity. Meanwhile, D-E got the adults thinking about where they stood along the privilege line. Much was shared between students and adults alike during this hour and a half session.

Award-winning journalist Sonia Nazario was the last keynote speaker of the conferences, sharing a brief overview of her 20+ years of journalism during which she’s covered social issues like hunger, drug addiction and immigration. Her decision at age 13 to become a reporter came shortly after her mother moved them from Kansas to Argentina when her father died: “I learned early in life that stories matter…. Journalists were killed trying to tell the truth. I stared at the blood in the street and decided to become a truth teller. I was 14, but I had already understood the power of words and storytelling.”

This is a philosophy that she has carried on to her work, where she has “focused on people who didn’t get enough ink” or “fly on the wall reporting … ‘DBI’ – dull but important issues, inside worlds they’d otherwise not see.” It is something she advised everyone at PoCC and SDLC to do: “Search for stories that move [you] in an emotional manner… It might move you to read to the end, become better educated, maybe even do something.”

After the Storm

Just three days after returning, PoCC and SDLC attendees from 2014 and prior years met during the Diversity Committee meeting for a debrief with Head of School Dr. Rodney De Jarnett and Upper School Principal Joe Algrant – the first debrief of its kind where the administration was invited along with past conference participants. After Mr. Carbon shared some photos submitted by those who attended this year’s trip, the floor was open for anyone who felt compelled to share their experience.

A student from this year’s delegation “really wish[ed] I could go back to that love and support where no one’s judging you. From the start, they don’t care what you’re wearing, your hair, who you are, where you came from. [They just asked,] ‘What’s your story?’ They truly care about you.”

One teacher shared that “when I’m validated, I am more susceptible to validating my students.”

Another added that PoCC and SDLC provide a “sustained profound idealized conversation that happens the entire time. People go right to the point. The point is constant. That’s the intent…. We say things we don’t feel comfortable sharing outside of this unique circumstance.”

The lingering question that was raised by a faculty member was, “How can we sustain that [judgment-free zone] and bring it back here? We who go [to PoCC/SDLC] all know how important it is.”

Providing a safe space for all students is something that the D-E community aims to embrace and aspires to obtain. Regardless of comfort levels, as members of D-E, it should be a goal to raise consciousness and inclusivity – and PoCC and SDLC equips a few in our community with the necessary tools to execute this mission… so stay tuned!

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