Harmony, Discord, and Notes in Between: This Year’s People of Color and Student Diversity Leadership Conferences

“What I realized for the first time is how guarded my conversations are with some of my best friends, my white friends,” says Ethan Kabati ’19 who attended the 2018 Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) for the first time. “My white friends can be empathetic — and they are — but they won’t ever have racial slurs yelled at them simply because of the color of their skin. I have experienced this situation many times, and I am only 17.”
Held in Nashville, Tennessee, this year’s National Association of Independent School’s People of Color Conference (PoCC) and Student Diversity Leadership Conference took on the theme: “Equitable Schools and Inclusive Communities: Harmony, Discord, and Notes in Between.” Although the two conferences share introductory and culminating talks, the conferences are separate, the first for teachers, educators, and administrators, the second for students. This year, six students and eight faculty and staff attended, Lab’s ninth year participating.
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 and professional development and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools. SDLC focuses on self-reflecting, forming allies, and building community.  

Before the conference, the group of students and faculty stopped for lunch at the famous Woolworth lunch counter where the Nashville, sit-ins from February 13 to May 10, 1960 were part of a nonviolent direct action campaign to end racial segregation. “I have seen the lunch counters at the Smithsonian, but being in that building, walking those streets, and being at that actual lunch counter where those brave people walked and sat and ate was very emotional,” says Yosi Zelalem ’19 who has attended SDLC for the third year. The group also visited Fisk University, a private historically black university in Nashville founded in 1866, and in particular its striking Jubilee Hall, which was the first permanent structure erected in the south for the education of African Americans. Famous alumni include W.E.B Dubois, Rep. John Lewis, and Poet Nikki Giovanni.
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Yvette Shepard, Director of Admissions Dr. Robert Lane, and Associate Head of High School Chris Lanier were invited, for a second year running, to present “Language, Labels, and Power: The Intersection of “LD” and Students of Color in Independent Schools,” but were unable to due to illness.
“I found this year’s conference more direct, more expansive and rigorous,” says Ms. Shepard. “In his opening statement, Rodney Glasgow [noted speaker, facilitator, trainer, and activist in the areas of diversity, equity, and social justice as well as one of the founders of SDLC] called for strategic, immediate, and direct action. He talked about how people of color are either silent or rageful. He told us to return to our schools on Monday — the first day following the conference — and proceed with our strategic plans … personal, community, and school plans.”
“I had heard about PoCC/SDLC from students and faculty who had attended in the last few years, but I still didn’t know what to expect. I had never before been around so many other black people, so many extremely diverse people; it was exhilarating. Hearing their stories was incredibly powerful, too, partly because they were so like mine … I’m not the only one who even when I am driving — two hands on the wheel, on or below the speed limit, doing everything right — I still panic when I see a police car because of my own experiences and what I see on the news,” says Ethan. “Attending this year has definitely lit a fire under me. I am thinking about trying to start a Black Student Union in the High School, and work more with friends and peers in the Black Lives Matter movement.”
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