Six students and a dozen faculty members joined peers from across the country to immerse themselves in discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) and People of Color Conference (PoCC), respectively, in early December.
The three-day conference in Seattle, Washington, is part of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) programming and focuses on the multitude of experiences that encompass a diverse society with the intent of participants bringing these discussions back to their academic communities. The SDLC draws 1,600 teens, participating schools are limited to sending six students, and the PoCC convened 6,400 educators.
The conference explored diversity expressed in multiple ways, from age and ability to family structure and socioeconomic status, and religion and LGBTQ+ experiences. For the SPS student delegation, the conference left them with a broader definition of diversity.
“I never really thought of diversity as different identities,” says Arianna Morataya ’21. “I just thought of different races. For me, diversity – especially at SPS – has always been students of color. I thought this would be a student of color social.”
What the Morataya and her fellow attendees discovered was something more nuanced. “When I got there, I was like, 'Wait, not everyone here is a student of color.’ The event introduced the big eight identities: race, gender, sex, age, ability, religion, family structure, and socioeconomic status," explains Morataya. “Now I can see why it is such a big event. It's not only focused on one identity. It shows how they all overlap in some way.”
Taking part in this event is important for several reasons adds Dean of Equity and Inclusion James Greenwood. "We know that there are existing literature and research around the importance of diversity in our working environment and particularly the experience of having a diverse faculty, a racially diverse faculty," explains Greenwood. "This is one of the vehicles by which we can help sustain, nurture, and support those folks in the community who typically are here in the minority.”
“We know that research has dictated and demonstrated that diverse groups of people solve problems in better and more creative ways than homogeneous groups of people where people are thinking in the same ways,” explains Greenwood. “All of those sorts of things that just ultimately helps us produce a better educational experience for our students in our community all around.”
Through presentations and breakout groups, the students were able to share their own experiences. Adani Duguay-Webster '20 found the group interactions to be the most potent element of the conference. “The one thing that a lot of people had said was that they had shared things that they never shared with anyone,” recalls Duguay-Webster. “That was true. I felt the same way. I had shared things that I never told anyone before.”
The immersion for faculty proved equally thought-provoking. Science faculty member Darik Vélez says he left the conference with a better understanding of his cultural identity and its complexities and returns to the School as a better educator for the experience. Both of Vélez's parents left Puerto Rico to live and work in the United States and raised their three children in Hanover, New Hampshire. As a white-passing person of color, Vélez says he’s often struggled with acceptance within the Latinx community.
"I've always wondered, 'How do I fit into this?' I do pass, and students may look at me and never realize that they've had a Latinx teacher,” says Vélez. “I may have Latinx students in my class who maybe never realized that we have a deeper connection.”
“As one of the only Puerto Ricans that I ever met growing up in New Hampshire, it was like, this is so bizarre. So, really what does being Puerto Rican mean to me? It's a hidden part of myself,” says Vélez. “To be able to focus on these questions of inclusion, questions of equity, questions of seeing every student genuinely where they are, and trying to figure out more, where do I see myself on that spectrum, and how can I then support students?”
“The big takeaway is I need to be as natural as I can be for myself,” says Vélez. "So, I can encourage my students to be as natural as they can be for themselves."
Morataya shared a parallel experience in her affinity group. Her parents, from El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, are both Spanish-speaking. Morataya understands the language but doesn’t speak it. When she meets people, even fellow Latinos, she says they are perplexed, and they question her claim to a Latinx identity. At the conference, she was able to connect with those who shared a similar experience.
“A lot of students, even myself, I feel like some aspects of our identity need to be suppressed,” explains Moratya. “Like food, culture, background, music. I always downplay it so it won't be as obvious, but there everyone was, ‘I'm this, and I'm that, and I'm proud.’ I think with the affinity groups, there's a room filled with people of the same racial background or not the same racial background but similar culture. Seeing everyone who looked like me or spoke like me, or just shared the same experience was powerful. Two people at my table were from a Salvadorian background, and in my home town I've met one in my entire life.”
These moments are validating and empowering for both students and adults. “I think it's affirming to know that you're not the only one and to see that others are traveling the same roads,” says Greenwood.