Six Upper School students, James Allen '20, Ricky Deadwyler '21, Madalyn Yates '21, Sam DuPree '21, Destiny Smith '20 and Grace Diehl '20, attended the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) from Nov. 28-Dec. 1. A multiracial, multicultural gathering of Upper School student leaders from across the U.S. and abroad, SDLC focuses on self-reflecting, forming allies and building community. Below are the students’ reflections from the conference.
The 25th Anniversary of the Student Diversity Leadership Conference was held in Nashville, Tennessee. Everyone who went previously praised it to be a life-changing experience; yet, personally, I had no idea what to expect. To think that 1,700 students across the country would all meet, all share and all listen with peers in hopes for later change was mind-boggling. Nonetheless, I left my small home state of Delaware to soon enter and embrace the discomfort of SDLC.
At the door of the Music City Convention Center, curiously watching the other students around me, I remember thinking that each one of those faces had a story to share—a life full of experience, opinions and identity. Though I would probably never get to hear them or officially meet them, I recognized in that moment, through the crowd, that everyone has their own undiscovered autobiography. SDLC is the very safe haven where the individual would be able to find his or her voice. Yet, it made me question: who am I? What is my story? And what am I willing to share?
The PoCC and SDLC, a combined 6,000 people, gathered in one room. Welcomed by multiple speakers and the Tennessee State marching band, I realized the magnitude of this event; I was now a part of something greater than myself. I now understood that this was not just about discovering my own identity but to also bring change. I would carry the experience and stories of others back to Tower Hill, back to my friends and family and back to other strangers. The hopes of the co-chairs, Rodney Glasgow, Oscar Gonzalez and Collinus Newsome, was not to just affect the attendees of the conference but also the people who would later be taught and inspired by students like me. Greater change starts in the youth.
This new mindset shifted my attitude for the rest of the conference. With each person that I met, I would now try to look them right in the eye. I would try to really see them—not the person that they try to be or the confining identities that society boxes them into—but them. In my “family group,” a smaller, divided group of about 40, we did several activities in attempt to get to know each other and ourselves.
The activity that stood out to me the most was where we partnered up with a complete stranger. Sitting in complete silence, we stared right into the person’s eyes. At first, there were giggles and laughter verifying the clear discomfort. Yet, the study of the person’s face—their big, dilated pupils looking right back at you—their mutual openness, seeing them, was more intimate that words. I would later get to know their name, where they are from,and their experiences; still, that first, awkward stare would be a stronger bond that connected us. It taught me that silence speaks louder than words. I must lean into uncomfortable environments of complete vulnerability and allow someone else to see me. The me that is not afraid of judgement or saying the wrong thing. Once we are open and clearly see one another, change is possible. We can no longer dehumanize and hate but rather accept and see.
I hope to bring this open mindedness back to Tower Hill and encourage others to do the same. Thank you to the people of SDLC for accepting me and teaching me priceless lessons that I will carry forever.
—Grace Diehl '20
When people ask me about the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), my response is the same: “intense… in a good way.”
The day prior to the official start of SDLC, only a percentage of students went to dinner and training to be peer facilitators. We did a lot of different activities and all of them started the same way and proved to teach a valuable lesson that we would need not only to facilitate serious conversations but that would also make us better people. The activities started as ice breakers and small talk with strangers but this surface level conversation quickly escalated as the staff members directed us to look for the “story” behind each question and answer that people had said. A reason for someone asking a question as simple as “How are you?” could be that no one ever cared to ask them and actually want an answer. I learned to try to be receptive to what people really want to say, what they want people to ask them, and what they want people to be for them. I learned to be more open and compassionate when listening to others. Four hours had passed and I felt like I had learned months' worth of knowledge in such a short time. That’s really when I knew this would be an experience I wasn’t ready for. But I also knew that I would need to soak up the most from this experience that I possibly could because it would be life-changing if I did. So I resolved to remember every detail and every feeling I had during the time.
Even in a large room with 1,700 students, I was immersed in the community right away. There was no choice. Everyone was included whether we had planned to be or not. The Silent Movement, in particular, sped up this immersion. Identities of eight categories were called and if someone identified with that identity, they would stand and be acknowledged. The facilitator made it clear that no one would say anything. There would be no judgment. Through this, I learned that no one is alone in their identity and that most times, all people want is to be acknowledged, to be recognized as a person who exists and who matters.
The first day of the actual conference, all students were split into “families,” groups of 40-50 students. By the end of the first hour of discussion and activities, I felt completely safe to share my story or give an opinion on a controversial topic. I felt comfortable with sharing because I knew that the room would welcome me just as I had learned to welcome the people in it. In this small, crowded room with 48 other people, I didn’t feel like I needed to filter my language or my thoughts or alter my values in order to be accepted.
As the second day, my last at SDLC, was approaching its conclusion, I felt increasingly more unsatisfied. I wanted to learn more, to be in this community, this utopia, where people were not only accepting of others, but unapologetically themselves, for a much longer time. I realized that the purpose of the SDLC is to show us what a truly inclusive society would look like and encourage us to recreate it when we leave.
I am a better person for having had this experience and I am truly grateful. I am more hopeful about the future. I now have faith in people to be inherently good.
—Destiny Smith '20