By Alice Roche Cody
One of the biggest takeaways for Isha Vemuri '22 from the 2020 NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), is that it changed how she will talk about race with her friends. By immersing herself in the four-day exploration of culture and identity, she feels energized to bring what she learned to campus and help make GSB a stronger and even more accepting community.
"All of us at the conference came from small schools where some of our friends were not as open to discussing topics of race and gender as we are," Isha said. "I realized how important it is to bring these conversations into our everyday lives and listen to what everyone has to say, not only those with opinions we agree on. I was surprised to see how much support and lack of judgement there was when anyone shared a personal story or opinion. The overwhelming love that was felt, even through Zoom, is something that I would love to see at Gill and would help us create a culture of more inclusivity."
By participating in the South Asian Affinity Group, Isha connected virtually with other students from around the world who share a similar ethnic background. For her, the sessions proved transformative. "Coming from a small school like GSB, it is rare that I can find people from similar ethnic backgrounds as me to share experiences with," she said. "Spending time with the South Asian Affinity group gave me a chance to talk to people that I had an almost instant bond with, because we are all people of color from independent schools."
Isha attended SDLC's Keeping it Real in Independent Schools: Creating our Real Selves. Connecting in Real Time. Making Real Change, with fellow GSB students, Ishaan Bal '22, Mary Jane Granito '22, Maysa Johnson '22, Christopher Coddington '23, and Josh Mulcahy '23, December 1-4. The multiracial, multicultural conference of upper school student leaders drew more than 2,000 independent school students from across the United States and abroad. Attendees focused on self-reflection and community building, while developing cross-cultural communication skills, designing effective strategies for social justice, and learning the foundations of allyship and networking. Activities included small break-out sessions, speakers, and affinity groups divided into racial or ethnic identities. The GSB contingency shared their experiences at the Upper School assembly yesterday.
This year marked the first time in GSB's history that its students participated in SDLC. Previously, attendees traveled to different locations, but because the conference was presented virtually this year, GSB students could participate remotely while managing their academic work.
"Our students who attended are leaders within our community, and our expectation is that what they learned and experienced, they will bring back to their leadership roles and build from there," said Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tracey Goodson Barrett. "These students are empowered to be change agents and will help lead the effort to strengthen equity, inclusion, and belonging within our school community."
For Mary Jane, the Silent Movement activity, where participants came in touch with their own identities, was particularly moving. "It was incredible to see people feel proud of who they are, and to feel recognized," she said. "It's each of our unique experiences, perspectives, and identities that make our community so beautiful and vivid." She looks forward to sharing what she learned with Gill for Diversity, and to bring the listening, learning, and empathy conversation skills into everyday dialogues on campus.
To help Mary Jane and the other students gain the most possible from SDLC, three GSB alums shared their guidance ahead of time. Jonathan Sonnenberg '15, Kelly Schiesswohl '17, and Jessica Abowitz '18 attended Lead for Diversity (LFD) as GSB students. Jonathan, a recent NYU grad, suggested that students stay open-minded and listen earnestly. "Train yourself to question why you think what you think," he said. "Disconnect from distractions, like your phone, and encourage honesty in a radical way. It's a process which will require you to accept trial and error as you engage in conversations about inclusion."
Jessica, a Wellesley student and former member of Gill for Diversity, suggested that participants remember the good intentions of others when working through uncomfortable feelings. And Kelly, a Pratt student, shared her wish for the GSB delegation: "Share without fear and be fearless in your approach. The beauty of the times is that technology gives us the power to amplify our voices."
With the support of the GSB community, both present and past, behind them, the students started the conference well-prepared and ready to learn. The experience proved successful for all. Christopher Coddington found the connections he made particularly important, given the current times. "I really appreciated the family groups which promoted a culture of care, family, and inclusion, which a lot of kids might need, especially with the pandemic," he said. "It was an immense privilege to be one of the first six students from Gill St. Bernard's to attend this conference – ever. It was also a great social avenue, particularly this year, with many of my peers feeling isolated. It was a great opportunity to connect with people and teens our age."
Moving forward, Isha is excited to bring the intercultural skills she learned back to the Gill, especially to the affinity clubs. "The conference emphasized that all of us listen, listen, listen, then process, which is important in fostering an inclusive space, because many misunderstandings and fallouts occur because we don't spend enough time really listening to each other." Co-participant Josh Mulcahy concurs: "Always keep an open mind about other people; you don't know the things they’ve been through and what they have to deal with. Just be kind." Sage advice for all.
Five GSB faculty members attended the concurrent NAIS People of Color Conference (POCC), New Decade, New Destinies. Attendees included Upper School Director Joel Coleman, Lower and Middle School Director Kyle Armstrong, Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Candace Pryor Brown, Social Studies Teacher Charlotte Hogan, and English Teacher Kim DiMasi. POCC is the flagship of the National Association of Independent Schools' commitment to equity and justice in teaching, learning, and organizational development. The conference's mission is to provide a safe space for leadership, professional development, and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds from independent schools.