A Gathering of Quaker Students

Sidwell Friends co-hosted the annual Quaker Youth Leadership Conference

Last month, Sidwell Friends hosted almost 200 students and faculty from Quaker schools for the annual Quaker Youth Leadership Conference (QYLC). Organized by the Quaker Life Committees at Sidwell, Sandy Spring Friends School, and Friends School of Baltimore, the conference drew participants from many schools across the United States, as well as one from Canada. In keeping with Quaker tradition, the aim of each QYLC is to foster continuing revelation, candid dialogue, and above all, inter-school community building. This year’s theme of “Higher Ground through Common Ground” sought to address these goals through discussions of media, bias, and identity. 

I was struck again and again by the power of storytelling and the ways it unites even the most different of people. For me, looking at media with that lens of narrative and identity, along with the central search for truth, helps explain so many of the media-related and political conflicts today. With such bias, loaded language, and slanted stories, it’s no wonder we struggle to understand each other. The key to common ground lies exactly here: We must learn the stories of people we see as ‘other’ and listen in order to understand, not to refute. 

The weekend’s keynote speaker, John Biewen of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, opened Thursday’s activities by exploring the conference theme through the lens of podcasting. As part of his talk, he shared clips of his series “Seeing White” and “Men,” both part of the Scene on Radio podcast, through which he explores race and gender roles. In his discussion of “Seeing White,” Biewen examined the social construction of “whiteness” and its use as a justification following the enslavement of other racial groups. As a white man, he addressed the ways in which his own biases and personal experiences shape the way he approaches these issues and challenged the audience to think about their own roles in social systems. 

Dialogue continued on a snowy Friday morning as QYLC attendees ventured downtown to DC’s Newseum for a panel presentation with five media professionals. The panelists discussed topics such as media bias, critical consumption of news, and the intersection between identity and storytelling. With friendly tones, they quickly developed a rapport with their teenage audience, encouraging students to stay in touch and explore future careers in media. At the Newseum, student groups browsed the exhibits on journalism, news production, political cartoons, and even First Dogs (that is, dogs that belonged to presidents) before regrouping for a lobbying workshop with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying organization. In the training session, students learned about effective persuasive speaking, how to meet with their representatives, and tried their hand in a lobbying simulation on topics like DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and gun control.

Back on campus, QYLC participants engaged in two service projects on Thursday and Friday night, one for FCNL’s letter writing campaign and the other for the National Institutes of Health’s Children’s Inn. In addition to bettering the community, these projects allowed students to make friends outside of their school groups and connect with people they otherwise would not be able to. Relationship building continued through the QYLC edition of a Sidwell staple, Arts Guild, where students let their light shine through music, card tricks, comedy, and dance. The meeting room was brimming with warmth as former strangers sang together to John Denver’s “Country Roads” and cheered for their new friends. The Arts Guild provided an excellent community moment and sent people to sleep with high spirits. 

On Saturday morning, students and chaperones shared one last bittersweet breakfast before breaking out into student-led workshops. With topics ranging from sex ed in schools to combatting internal biases, these sessions gave students a chance to take leadership and engage in difficult conversations. Following the workshops, everyone gathered back in the meeting room for a final hour of Meeting for Worship. A high point in the conference, the meeting provided a space for the sharing of silence, reflections, gratitude, and memories from the past few days. The meeting mirrored the warmly emotional quality of the weekend and brought multiple people to tears. After meeting, the time came for departures, and former strangers said goodbye as close friends. Sidwell’s Quaker Life Committee was honored to participate in such a powerful experience and is looking forward to next year’s QYLC at George School.

by Sofia Flynn ’21

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