Students attend virtual diversity conference


AJ Walker, Heidi Li, and Ava Lipsky

Students and faculty members from independent schools nationwide gathered online this week for the annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) and People of Color Conference (PoCC) to engage in discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion within private institutions. 

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) organizes the PoCC and SDLC. According to their website, NAIS aims to shape the future of education by empowering students and faculty members to be leaders in their respective communities and work together to create a more equitable environment. 

The conference took place during the day from Monday to Friday.  In a typical year, students and faculty members would travel together to attend the conference in-person. However, the conferences, which were initially planned to be held in St. Louis, Missouri, were all virtual this year.

In addition to the conference, Taylor held brief check-ins every morning for the school’s conference attendees — six students and 16 faculty members — to discuss takeaways from the conference and gauge student engagement before they logged into their workshops, he said. 

Taylor had hoped that the student attendees would experience SDLC in person because of the informal connections and community building that happen naturally when conference participants come together, he said. 

Ericka Familia (12), a first-time attendee, was disappointed when she heard it was online. “I heard from people who went last year and years prior that one of the most meaningful components of the conference for them were those close connections that you form with people, and that tends to be much more difficult online,” she said. Still, she went into the conference with an open mind and was eager to connect with other students and learn from their experiences. 

Despite the virtual format, SDLC hosted a variety of workshops and socials to foster a sense of community amongst attendees, including affinity groups and an optional talent show. Familia attended the Latinx affinity group and greatly appreciated the opportunity to hear other students talk about their family’s backgrounds and experiences with immigration, she said. “It was really meaningful for me to compare [their experiences] with my own and have conversations with people who share my background and culture, which I don’t really get to do at Horace Mann,” Familia said. 

Attendee Jaiden Wilson (11) particularly enjoyed attending a silent movement workshop, where participants kept their cameras off and turned them on when an identifier was read that they resonated with, she said. The workshop helped participants see what aspects of their identity they shared with others and appreciate not only the shared experiences of the attendees, but the diversity within the group as well, Wilson said. 

The initial idea for SDLC stemmed from the success of the pre-existing PoCC, which was established exclusively for faculty and staff at independent schools. As a young, Black administrator, Taylor has found meeting other young, Black administrators just like him at the conference in past years and discussing their experiences as faculty at predominantly white institutions to be incredibly reaffirming, he said.  “I never had that [opportunity] after leaving public schools and working in independent schools, so for me that was like a weird moment of recharging that I did not know I needed.”

After experiencing the way the PoCC helped faculty members better their school communities, Taylor felt that students also needed a space like the PoCC if they were also going to make changes in their communities, he said. “It is one thing for faculty to get a whole bunch of tools and skills and different things,” Taylor said. “It is another thing to make sure students are getting the appropriate leadership development so that they can actually become the young people that we need to hold our schools accountable.” 

Louise Kim (10) learned about student leadership from a discussion with a panel of 10 SDLC faculty members moderated by Dr. Rodney Glasgow, where the panelists discussed student-based activism in schools and ways for students to create tangible change. “One of [the panelists] said that even existing in those spaces [predominantly white institutions] as a marginalized person is an act of resistance,” she said.

Kim first learned about the conference from Nshera Tutu’s (12) opinion piece entitled “A community away from home: The SDLC experience” from Volume 117 Issue 25 of The Record. Tutu’s article about her overwhelmingly positive experience at last year’s SDLC, along with other student accounts inspired Kim to apply for this year’s conference to meet other students nationwide who are interested in activism, she said. 

“After having spent some amount of time learning the basic properties of social justice and how activism works on a student level by myself, I really wanted to get that chance to interact with people that I would not have known if not for the conference,” Kim said.

Through breakout rooms and affinity groups, Kim was able to fulfill this desire and even exchange contact information with other attendees. 

The biggest takeaway that Taylor hopes students get from SDLC is that they have agency, he said. “I hope that they learned that they have more control than they realize, and I hope that they learned that their voices matter incessantly,” Taylor said.

While Familia is a senior and cannot attend the conference next year, she would recommend it to other students because it teaches them how to think critically about their identity and learn from the experiences of others, she said. “Even if you’re not necessarily passionate about social justice or things like that, I think that it’s still a very meaningful experience and anyone can benefit from going to SDLC,” Familia said.

The ICIE has already begun planning the application process for next year’s conference, Associate Director of the ICIE Ronald Taylor said. Students will be required to submit an application and conduct an interview either in-person or over Zoom, he said.