From November 30 through December 4, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) held two of its most significant annual events: the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) and the People of Color Conference (PoCC). This year, of course, both conferences were entirely virtual. Six St. Mark's students attended the 2020 SDLC while six members of the School's adult community took part in the 2020 PoCC.
Ryan Ashford '22, Louise He '23, Megan Miantsoko '21, Charlie Poulin '23, Darius Wagner '23, and Taylor Zhou '23 experienced the SDLC, a multiracial, multicultural gathering of upper school student leaders (grades 9-12) from across the U.S. and abroad. SDLC focuses on self-reflecting, forming allies, and building community. Led by a diverse team of trained adult and peer facilitators, participating students develop cross-cultural communication skills, design effective strategies for social justice practice through dialogue and the arts, and learn the foundations of allyship and networking principles.
"This was my first year attending SDLC," said Megan Miantsoko, a VI Former from Bronx, New York and one of this year's Monitors. "It definitely was different than conferences I attended in the past since it was completely virtual, but I believe I was able to take away just as much as I would have under different circumstances. I enjoyed the consistent schedule of meeting with family and affinity groups every day. From those groups, I was able to join a network of students that have taught me so much about the different core social identifiers and how they work in communities that are not very diverse, like our independent schools. This conference helped me work toward becoming a better leader, working on cross-cultural communication skills as well as effective strategies for change and social justice. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to and meet amazing speakers, like Rodney Glasgow and Dr. Bettina Love, and also to have found a safe space among other black students in independent schools across the country."
It was also the first time at the SDLC for Louise He, a IV Former from Shanghai, China. "The overall experience was reassuring and informative," said Louise. "At the international students' affinity group, I got to relate my experiences as an international student with that of many others, and I appreciate how comforting just sharing my struggles and hearing from others with the same struggles was. This made me realize how empowering and important affinity spaces are. We also got the chance to come up with our own action plans for our school, and I realized that one of my concerns would be the lack of a platform for students to voice their ideas and to make a change. I know that pathway prefects and other students in leadership positions have more opportunities to make changes happen, but I think that there should be more platforms for anyone at our school."
Darius Wagner, a IV Former from Brooklyn, New York, credited this year's SDLC with "opening my eyes and mind to whatever ideas I may embrace and dispelling any unconscious stereotypes." This, he noted, "helped me see the person and their story no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality. The most valuable thing I learned from SDLC was how much more there is to learn. I heard masses of stories from across our globe that gave a similar creed: we are all humans and you cannot truly know a person by judging them based on their identity. One thing I said during the conference that I jotted down in my notes was 'We are all trailblazers and leaders in our respective environments. We are doing the right thing even when it's hard. Remember the work you do today may present a new society for future generations to come.' And one quote I walked away with was: 'Respect those who may be volatile to different cultures. You may never know a person by assumptions.'"
Taylor Zhou, a IV Former from Yixing, China, was impressed with this year's virtual event. "The SDLC is a place that promotes further understanding of diversity by involving students with hundreds and thousands of their peers from across the globe," she said. "With this year's online SDLC, it was amazing to see how the organizers were taking technological advantages and ensure the same quality education, close relationships between participants, and inclusive atmosphere just like the years before. The combination of family group discussions, affinity group discussions, flipgrid video interactions, and speaker events created abundant opportunities for students to tell their own stories, express their opinions regarding certain personal or social issues as well as listening to understand other people's experiences. Building upon the knowledge gained based on the group and all-participant events, students were also involved in activities that teach them how to resolve certain issues, such as self-doubting, implicit bias, over-pressure, and etc. Therefore, SDLC for me personally, marks the commencement of my endless journey in fighting against social inequality based on culture, gender, and ethnicity. It also reminds me of the necessity of calling for realization in these problems and utilizing the knowledge I obtained to make a change."
The six St. Mark's adults attending the 2020 online PoCC were Dr. John Daves (director of community and equity affairs), Starry Zhu (assistant director of community and equity affairs), Anne Behnke (director of admission), Lauren Ames (associate director of athletics), Caleb Cochran (director of communications and marketing) and Nick Noble '76 (communications manager and school historian).
The annual PoCC is the flagship of NAIS' commitment to equity and justice in teaching, learning, and organizational development. The mission of the conference is to provide a safe space for leadership, professional development, and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools. With seminars, a master class, and more than 100 workshops on diverse topics relevant to people of color in independent schools, PoCC equips educators at every level, from teachers to trustees with new skills. The purpose of it all is to provide knowledge and experiences to improve the interracial, interethnic, and intercultural climate in in schools, for a positive impact on the academic, social-emotional, and workplace performance outcomes for students and adults alike. With a rich history spanning more than 30 years, PoCC is unique among professional development experiences in the national education landscape. PoCC supports the complex dynamics of independent school life and culture and the varied roles people of color play and experience in these settings. As NAIS strives to build and sustain inclusive school communities, PoCC offers a sanctuary and networking opportunity for people of color and allies in independent schools.
This year, due to its online virtual programming, attendance for PoCC workshops, at PoCC presentations, and in PoCC affinity groups was record-shattering. The St. Mark's contingent experienced a wide range of offerings.
"I particularly enjoyed a session with Professor Khyati Joshi," said Mr. Cochran. "Professor Joshi discussed a layer of white privilege that I had personally not thought a lot about—white religious privilege, and specifically white Christian privilege. Her presentation was personal, clear, and thought-provoking, and I look forward to reading some of her work on this topic."
Mr. Noble found so much of the conference to be eye-opening, especially a workshop entitled "Dear White People at POCC: The Hidden Curriculum," presentations about social justice, and conversations around telling the story of institutional approaches to diversity. "You cannot celebrate positive successes unless you are also willing to acknowledge the negatives—the problems and the mistakes of the past."
"This was my fourth year in a row attending the NAIS People of Color Conference," said Ms. Zhu. "Although it was completely virtual, I still managed to reconnect with my fellow diversity practitioners and attend a variety of workshops focused on topics ranging from developing my own cross-cultural competency to using data to guide and advance anti-racism work. My favorite part of the conference is the affinity group session and nothing is more reinvigorating than seeing more than 500 Asian educators from independent schools across the country in one ZOOM room!"
The St. Mark's Community & Equity endeavors, led by Dr. Daves and Ms. Zhu, working internally and utilizing opportunities like these important NAIS conferences, exemplify the School's commitment to diversity and equity throughout the greater St. Mark's community: students, faculty, staff, parents, families, and alumni.