Student Diversity Leadership Conference


A group of Choate students and faculty members travelled to Tampa, Florida, not to soak up the sun, but rather to discuss important issues about race and gender, religion, socioeconomic status, as well as other diversity identifiers. Students and faculty participated in the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), a multicultural and multiracial gathering of student leaders from independent schools across the United States that was held from December 3 to 5.

According to the conference’s webpage, “participants will develop cross-cultural communication skills, better understand the nature and development of effective strategies for social justice, practice expression through the arts, and learn networking principles.”

Among many applicants, six students were chosen to go: Hakeem Angulu ’16, Eli Bickford ’16, Larisa Owusu ’17, Danielle Young ’17, Chloe Khosrowshahi ‘18, and Mpilo Norris ’18. To apply to go to SDLC, students wrote a short essay explaining why they wanted to attend the conference and how they would use the knowledge gained there to help the Choate community. For example, Angulu primarily chose to go to the conference “to hear others’ stories, because being someone who is outside of what the society declares as the “norm” in an independent school is rare. And it comes with a whole set of unique experiences.”

The first two days of the conference were focused on discussing issues around the core cultural identifiers, which included race and ethnicity, ability, religion, gender, and sexuality. The conference began with an opening speaker, Mae C. Jemison, the first woman of color to travel to space. Following this, the 1,600 student attendees were split up into “family groups,” which consisted of around forty to sixty people. The family groups were intended to facilitate dialogue and sharing. These groups were the “home base” of the conference, where students returned for activities and discussion in-between conference talks. In these family groups, two facilitators–college students or adults who may have previously attended SDLC–led discussions about identifiers such as ability, age, sexual orientation, and religion. The facilitators also defined these identifiers for the students. Students also participated in affinity groups; for example, there was a queer affinity group, African-American affinity group, multicultural affinity group, and white affinity group.

The conference also featured a variety of keynote speakers. Howard Stevenson, a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania was a keynote speaker. According to attendee Eli Bickford ’16, “Stevenson talked about racism in this country and how we are constantly saying things like ‘let’s move past racism,’ but the only way to actually do that is to confront it head on. It was very powerful and moving.”

Another speaker at the conference was Rodney Glasgow, an activist for equality and diversity who will be coming to Choate this winter for Diversity Day. Glasgow headed and coordinated this year’s conference. He is also the founder as well as co-chair of the Student Diversity Leadership Conference.

SDLC is run by the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS), and is held in conjunction with the People of Color Conference (PoCC), which is for faculty and administrators. Faculty members James Stanley, Tyren Bynum, Isabel Aguirre-Kelly, and Eera Sharma attended this conference. According to PoCC’s website, “PoCC is meant to equip educators at every level, from teachers to trustees, with knowledge, skills, and experiences to improve and enhance the interracial, interethnic, and intercultural climate in their schools.” The PoCC conference is organized similarly to the SDLC; the conference sorts the attendees into smaller groups to help foster discussion.
According to Mr. Bynum, “The People of Color Conference is an opportunity to meet with colleagues who are trying to incorporate more diversity and inclusion within curriculums. We look at the administrative structures within institutions to see how we can make them more inclusive. We work to support students of all the various diversities that we bring into our institutions to make sure that everybody is feeling comfortable.”

During the last portion of the conference, which took place on Saturday morning, students presented the changes they hoped to specifically implement at Choate to the faculty members. The students wished in particular to incorporate inclusion in school statements, especially for people of queer identities. Another hope was to have faculty trained in diversity. As Angulu said, “A lot of the times the people who should be there for you and your teachers are actually against you when they ignore pronouns or refuse to make the curriculum more diverse.”

One other important change the group wants is to include gender-neutral bathrooms in every building. Angulu noted that it’s “not something to freak out about – it’s the simple fact that an easily-accessible gender neutral bathroom in every building will help people who don’t identify with the binary feel more comfortable.”

The students and faculty members enjoyed the conference. When asked if there was anything he would change about the conference, Bickford replied, “I don’t feel like we talked about ability enough. There was a ton of talk about race and gender, a lot about sexual orientation, age, and family structure. But one of the biggest identifiers is ability, and I think we needed to talk about that more.” Additionally he felt that “it was so tailored towards what to do in your schools, I would like to have more information on what to do in the world.”

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