Student Diversity Leadership Conference: A Perspective

By Austin Tyner

Each year, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), gathers together 1,600 students from across the country at the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). The conference is led by returning students, who receive training to become peer facilitators, and trained adult facilitators. Held this year in Anaheim, California, from November 30th to December 3rd, the conference focused on helping students develop “effective strategies for social justice,” “cross-cultural communication skills,” and “networking principles and strategies,” according to NAIS.

The six Upper School students who were chosen to attend this conference from Collegiate were Shreya Sharma (‘20), Savanna Ellis (‘18), Zaed Karabatek (‘19), Gabbie Spurlock (‘18), Tyler Tunstall (‘18), and myself. Each student was sorted into family groups on our first day at the conference. These groups included anywhere from 30 to 50 people, and no one from the same school could be in the same group. This year, all family groups were named after female Disney characters. My group, the Mary Poppins group, was one of the smaller groups. These people were some of the most accepting people I have ever met, and I felt privileged to have met a group of like-minded individuals such as them. Throughout our time in the group, we did activities that fostered respectful discussion and debate around aspects of core cultural identifiers: ability, age, sexuality, religion, gender, race/ethnicity, family structure, and socioeconomic status.

The Mary Poppins Family Group. Photo credit: Austin Tyner.

Later on in the conference, we sorted ourselves into affinity groups. These groups were not pre-sorted, for the concept of an affinity group is that people gather together with others who all self-identify in a certain way. There were affinity groups for Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Middle Eastern people, African Americans, Asians, White people, the LGBTQ+ community, et cetera. I attended the White affinity group, where we discussed and came up with concrete things we can do to be allies to marginalized groups of people, to actively fight white supremacy, recognize our own privilege, and use it to create inclusivity within our communities.

Gabbie Spurlock (‘18) attended the African American affinity group and said the thing that most impacted her within the group was conversation around beauty and accomplishments of African American women. Spurlock stated, “You know, there is a society standard that exists, but we are beautiful, no matter what society says.” She says after the meeting she felt “ready to conquer and to change things.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw. Photo courtesy of NAIS.

Attendees of the conference were lucky enough to be able to hear from many speakers, most notably Kimberlé Crenshaw and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Crenshaw is a professor and civil rights advocate who coined the term “intersectionality” in the 1980’s. I had understood this term in the context of feminism; however, Dr. Crenshaw opened my eyes to a broader use of the term and how it applies to the interaction of the core identifiers each other. This was instrumental in my understanding in later discussions about these identifiers.

Coates is a widely respected writer for The Atlantic and other publications, and he received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2015 for his writing about “racial identity and systematic racial bias.” He talked to us about his books: Between the World and Me, a memoir about racial bias in America, written in the form of a letter to his son; and We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy, a collection of essays and writings about the Obama years.

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking at SDLC.
Photo courtesy of Tyneeta Canonge via Twitter.

I have never been in an environment as positive as the one created by the wonderful SDLC family. There were 1,600 young people from all over the country, yet knowing that every single one of them was there to bring change and inclusivity made it feel like family. It was especially powerful for me to be able to discuss what it means to be a young, physically-disabled woman with other young women who had similar experiences. There is, I think, a certain strength that comes from knowing others like you are out there who understand what you’re going through, and are willing to talk about it to help you move forward.

The two messages I received from this experience are that we have the power to change the world around us for the better, and that I am not alone. I am so grateful to have been allowed to attend this conference, and I highly recommend it to any students have the opportunity. Thank you also to our chaperones: Upper School Spanish teacher Liz Bowling, college counselor Liz Jackson, and Director of Global Engagement and Inclusion Erica Coffey.

Featured image courtesy of NAIS.

About the author

Collegiate '18