A Meeting (or Two) of the Minds

At conferences in California, students and faculty find a shared commitment to diversity and justice.

A lively contingent of Sidwell Friends faculty and staff members and six Upper School students traveled to Anaheim earlier this month to attend two overlapping conferences: the annual People of Color Conference (PoCC) and the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), both sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools.

Both groups got to meet and talk with peers from around the country, attend sessions on social justice and diversity, and hear inspiring speakers. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke about the power of “wondering” versus “knowing” in our fractious political climate, and Eric Liu (who also gave the 2017 John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Memorial Lecture at SFS) described his ongoing work on the art of creative citizenship. 

Faculty and staff at PoCC attended half- and full-day equity seminars, as well as workshops on integrating social justice work and activism into curriculum, diversifying mandatory reading lists, increasing cultural competency, and many other topics. Upper School English teacher and EJC coordinator Hayes Davis said he “appreciates that the conference offers such a variety of workshops, [allowing] anyone who attends—teachers, counselors, administrators, etc.—to find something that will enrich them and, ideally, enrich the community in which they work.”

Since returning to school, the conference-goers have been enthusiastically sharing their experiences with fellow faculty members and classmates. This week, three of the students—11th graders Sterling Kee and Sophie Peikin and 10th grader Brooke Jacobs—met with Middle School teachers to talk about their trip and to lead the group in an exercise they had participated in at SDLC.

Sterling, Sophie, and Brooke spoke movingly about the spirit of the conference and the palpable sense of caring and compassion among the 1,600 high schoolers in attendance.

“The thing that stood out to me about SDLC,” said Brooke, “was how accepting and understanding and supportive everyone was … and that you didn’t have to hide something about yourself to be accepted or to create bonds.”

Sterling agreed, noting that students at the conference also cared passionately about the issues that had brought them together. “They were high school students, but they were also world citizens,” he said.

For Sophie, the opportunity to work with other students in small-group “families” was one of the highlights of SDLC. “Hearing them share their experiences from these different parts of the country that I’ve never seen was really cool,” she said. But despite the range of backgrounds and life stories, “it was also interesting to see how similar everyone was.”

At the conference, the students explained, attendees focused on high schoolers’ experience of eight specific cultural identifiers, such as race, gender, and ethnicity. One exercise that particularly resonated with the group aimed to raise awareness about socioeconomic diversity and how life circumstances can affect the way people respond to everyday school activities and events.

To illustrate, Brooke, Sterling, and Sophie led the assembled Middle School teachers through the same exercise: They assigned the teachers to one of four hypothetical student profiles, each with different types and amounts of resources at their disposal—more or less money, access to a car or public transit, a part-time job or more free time, a short or long commute to school, and so on. The students then walked the group through a month’s worth of hypothetical events, from the seemingly mundane to the calamitous, and asked everyone to make choices based on their profile. Should you skip a day of work to attend an important school event? Buy a prom dress or replace a broken calculator? The financial and social consequences of each person’s choices revealed stark differences among the four hypothetical profile groups.

Afterward, the teachers and students discussed their findings together: that it’s stressful to have to weigh the costs and benefits of each situation that arises, that the hectic pace of students’ lives can be exacerbated by long commutes or part-time jobs, that greater social clout tends to correlate with greater access to resources, and that our school needs to continue to focus on teaching students empathy and awareness.

“What I would bring back [from SDLC] to Sidwell and what I want all people to understand,” said Brooke, “is that we don’t need to get rid of these identifiers, we don’t need to get rid of these labels, we don’t need to get rid of who we are to be equal. … We don’t need to become the same to have acceptance and full understanding.”

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