Reflecting on the 2020 NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference

Reflecting+on+the+2020+NAIS+Student+Diversity+Leadership+Conference

Due to the global pandemic, the annual National Association of Independent Schools Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) was forced to move to a virtual setting this year. 

Each year the conference takes place in a different city. In previous years, the conference has taken place in cities such as Anaheim, California, Nashville, Tennessee and Seattle, Washington. Prior to COVID-19, the conference was set to be held in St. Louis, Missouri in 2020. 

Although things looked a lot different this year, four Burke high school students, Julia Brunetti ‘23, Montanna Norman ‘22, Leah Winston ‘22, and Kalea George-Phillips ‘21, had the opportunity to virtually attend the conference in November of last year. The conference was held from November 30 to December 4. Student attendees were split into two groups, A and B. Students were also in “family groups” named after notable women such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Condoleezza Rice, Kamala Harris and many more. 

The conference opened up with a welcome presentation for all students, faculty and chaperones. Along with the welcoming event, SDLC Co-chair Rodney Glasgow also delivered the community standard norms of SDLC. The conference then continued throughout the week with two special keynote speakers/activists, Dr. Bettina L. Love and Lyla June. The importance of abolitionist teaching, the concept of spirit murdering and the roots of native land were widely discussed. One of the main focuses of SDLC is to invite many uncomfortable conversations and different perspectives. 

As a person of color at a predominantly white institution, this conference was transformative and truly empowering. There was a lot to unpack within only a week. In this space, students were able to discuss a wide range of issues, which included everything from white fragility in independent schools to calling out America and its corrupt systems. A few weeks after the conference, I had the privilege and opportunity to reconnect with some members of the SDLC faculty team to discuss the core values of the conference, as well as their own experiences and reasons for being involved with SDLC. I conducted one-on-one Zoom interviews with four amazing educators: John Gentile (director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Calhoun School in New York City, New York), Rohan Arjun (co-director of admission at the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania), Terrell Winder (assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara) and Rachael Flores (head of upper school at The Spence School in New York City, New York). I was able to gather so many unique perspectives of the conference. Flores joined SDLC in 2013 and she described the conference as “one of the rare times that students felt like they could be their true authentic selves.” She added, “The leadership at SDLC is so strong. There isn’t a place quite like SDLC.” 

John Gentile, who applied to SDLC in 2009, added that “SDLC helps create possibilities for transformative change.” 

It was a major deal to be able to connect with students all over the country, and even overseas to discuss individual experiences in independent schools. Rohan Arjun, who has been a part of SDLC since he was a senior at the George School in 2005, mentioned that “it was possibly the best personal and professional development I’ve ever had. SDLC is a space that encourages and empowers students to find their purpose.” 

SDLC has truly become an important aspect of each faculty member’s life. The experience there is unmatched. I am not alone, and in a sense, SDLC was a wake-up call. 

Lastly, I had the pleasure of speaking with Terrell Webster, who joined SDLC faculty in 2007. Terrell emphasized the importance of inviting uncomfortable conversations. “Getting away from projecting what we think: an opportunity to learn and hear why and how,” he said. “We are huge on speaking from the ‘I’ perspective based on our own experiences. SDLC is not about us teaching you everything you need to know. It’s an opportunity for you to figure out your own perspective. Conversation is the backbone.” Being able to recognize and challenge these systems that are built against people of color is a pretty good first step, but since oppression is a deep-rooted issue, the dilemma remains to lie way beyond the flaws of the education system. 

If there is anything that I took away from my own experience at SDLC, the simplest one would be this: The work continues.