Initial Reflections on Attending the People of Color Conference (PoCC)

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DECEMBER LETTER TO FAMILIES (1/5)

I recently returned from the NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC) in Philadelphia, where Sarina Fierro, Robin Keith, Mimi Petrie, Monique Sherman, and I joined nearly 4,000 independent school educators (and ~1500 secondary school students) to explore the personal, professional, and institutional transformations necessary to ensure authentic diversity, inclusion, and equity in independent school communities. Approximately 1 in 9 attendees this year were White/European-American men and women: this ratio — ironically, perhaps — approximates the representation of people of color among employees at our and many other independent schools. As such, the demographics of this annual conference provide a unique opportunity for a white man — profoundly limited in its duration and its stakes, but transformative even in its narrow approximation of a lived experience — not by any means to understand, but perhaps to some extent to imagine, what it might be like to be part of so remarkably underrepresented a constituency in our independent school communities.

I was offered the extraordinary opportunity to help facilitate the conference’s ‘affinity group’ meetings for White/European-American men and women, during three sessions at the conference in which all conference attendees gathered according to their racial/ethnic affinity groups. This was a transformative experience for me, that I look forward to representing to you more fully in January–around the time that the five of us who attended will be presenting at a workshop for Curtis employees.

I do want to mention, though, the remarkable experience we shared on the third and final day of the conference: the opportunity to receive feedback on issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice from the students who had been meeting on a parallel track during the first two days. Adults were furnished the rare opportunity and expectation to take their lead from students during two sessions, and asked not to structure or to govern the conversations, but to listen, to hear, and to explore the experience of students of color and their allies in independent schools. Three contributions from high school students struck me as worth sharing:

1. An eleventh grade student from a northeastern school stood up in one session to share his perspective on inclusion in his predominantly White school community: “As students, we often think of our teachers as having all the power to change our school communities, and sometimes being afraid to use it. At this conference, I realized that the teachers sometimes wrestle with the same pressures, and maybe higher stakes and greater risk to promoting diversity and inclusion. Maybe we shouldn’t expect our teachers to lead school change and explain to us how we can support it. Maybe we, as students, have the real opportunity to lead change, and to ask our teachers for their support.”

2. An African-American high school student, from a local independent school, responded to an administrator’s question about how teachers might respond to students who make racial slurs or insensitive jokes: “I am tired of those students just being given a detention or a suspension as a ‘punishment.’ In my opinion, that is no more likely to teach that student, or to change the school culture, than sending a criminal to jail is likely to educate an offender. That student needs, and deserves, a meaningful opportunity to understand the impact of his or her words on people of color and to learn from that experience.”

3. A White student, responding to that input, suggested that “One thing we students can do, is to stop creating a comfortable space for that student who makes that kind of a comment in class. When a teacher calls that student out, we’re usually uncomfortable and make a joke out of it, like ‘Oooh. You got told.’ But even that somehow invites the student back into our community of students, kind of validates the joke rather than addressing the racism, and ignores the real problem. What we should be doing, as students, is finding an opportunity, later, to tell that student that we, too, feel like that comment wasn’t cool, and that we don’t accept it any more than the teacher does.”

These stunning examples of students’ mindfulness of their roles, responsibilities, and agency in their school communities were inspiring to me, as a school leader and as a parent. They serve as a wonderful example, instructionally and characterologically, to us all.