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Antidotes to Isolation: Reflections on the 2020 Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC)

with Julia B. ‘23, Kalea G.P. ‘21, Leah W. ‘22, and Montanna N. ‘22.
This November, four Burke students attended the first all-online SDLC, “a multiracial, multicultural gathering of upper school student leaders from across the U.S. and abroad,” according to the National Association of Independent Schools. In December, these students again gathered to share their experience and takeaways with the community.

Pictured: the authors (1); students at the in-person Diversity in the DMV conference and the Middle School Diversity Conference in February 2020 (2)
Ed.: How did this year’s event work, logistically speaking, in the virtual space?

Kalea ‘21: The organizers put us into groups, as they would normally do it, and we would meet at a certain time on Zoom. I met with my “family group” in the morning for about an hour and a half, and then I followed a different link to an affinity group for African American and Black students. Then there was a seminar every day, more in a webinar-type setting, and then an “evening of fun,” like dance parties or trivia.

Ed.: And what did the webinars involve?

Montanna ‘22: The webinars were more about listening and reflecting, usually with a keynote speaker. . I would also say that the webinar and Zoom group meeting facilitators allowed time for us to introduce ourselves in break out rooms to the different students who attended schools from all over the world. Although it was probably impossible to meet every student because there were over 1,000 students who attended the conference, this was nice to me because it gave me a sense of connection and unity and that can be hard sometimes, especially in a virtual setting.

Kalea ‘21: I especially remember when some of our adult facilitators spoke about what it was like for them, as people of color in independent schools, predominantly white institutions. One keynote speaker [Indigenous scientist and educator], Lyla June, talked about sacred land and how it should be respected.

Montanna ‘22: Dr. Bettina Love, a professor at the University of Georgia shared the experiences that she had as a black woman, and she was really empowering. She talked about the importance of abolitionist teaching. 

Leah ‘22: I probably liked the affinity groups the most. I was in the Black and African American students group, and we had almost 600 kids on Zoom. We were the biggest group, and I had never been around so many black kids before. We went into breakout rooms of about 40, and while we all have different experiences and live in different parts of the country, there were so many places where we could relate – which was sad, since some of those experiences weren’t the best. But it also made me feel understood.

Kalea ‘21: It was culture shock to surround myself with so many people who look like me. The fact that there were more African American and black students on one Zoom call than total students at Burke? It was amazing to be part of that.

Montanna ‘22: I also haven’t been surrounded by that many different kinds of people. Attending SDLC  was truly  a  transformative experience. There really was a place for everyone at SDLC. Even though this conference was only a week long, I know I felt like I was heard.

Julia ‘23: My favorite part was also the affinity groups. You could pick and switch through different groups, but I stuck with the same one and it was a really good experience.

Ed.: Why do you think it’s important for independent schools to offer this opportunity?

Kalea ‘21: In our “Burke bubble,” we sometimes don’t realize how many people are out there who are going through the same things that we are. We were surrounded by students from all around the country, and the world – there were even international students there. And it’s nice to be able to connect with people who are both like and unlike you at the same time, and find a safe space throughout it all. I never felt alone or isolated in the experience that I’d had.

Leah ‘22: While I love Burke, I do feel like I am isolated sometimes. Being at SDLC and having so many students who understand what I’m going through – that made me feel validated. It was healing. But it was bittersweet.

Ed.: Did your experience at SLDC suggest that we should do anything differently at Burke?

Julia ‘23: The focus on intersectionality. I think it was important to discuss and to bring, not only to my affinity group, but the others at Burke.

Leah ‘22: I agree. Some other schools even have a student-led Equity & Inclusion team that can push equity, inclusion, and diversity work forward. I also just think having conversations about race, class, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and gender identity can be so helpful.

Montanna ‘22: I also think those uncomfortable conversations need to be discussed often. It sometimes gets skimmed over, or  teachers at Burke try to avoid it; but it’s important to talk so that we can see change. Burke could definitely incorporate intersectionality more in lesson plans. It’s not enough just to be an ally. You have to learn the foundations of why you act the way you do and why things happen a certain way. I’d say it’s also important not to teach history from a white-savored point of view because that is detrimental to all of us.

Kalea ‘21: I think it’s important to just start. There’s no excuse to move slowly. Just jump in and have the conversations that need to be had. I also realized that, even though Burke could do more, we have done a lot compared to other schools. It’s impressive how we, as students, can push Burke to change for the better without going through all these layers of administration.

Leah ‘22: While Burke still has work left to do, I felt grateful to go to a school like this; when I heard what some of my peers from around the country experienced, my heart dropped. 

The norms that stuck with me were “lean into discomfort” and “listen, listen, process.” That can definitely be useful at our school. During conversations about race and racism there were times where I was interrupted and ignored and felt dismissed, as one of few African American students in the room. So I think all of us taking the time to fully hear our classmates and process what they are saying can be very beneficial. I also was reminded to protect my own space and have boundaries, and to not let the education of my peers come at my own expense. That’s one thing I plan to take forward with me.

Ed.: Are there any other takeaways that you would like to share more broadly?

Julia ‘23: It was really important to give everyone space to share their perspective. It was eye-opening to hear perspectives that I may not have thought about before, to take that into account and do as much as we can to help others’ voices be heard.

Leah ‘22: One theme that came up in my groups is that diversity isn’t enough. There needs to be support for teachers and students once we’re there, and a focus on equity and diversity of the curriculum. 

Montanna ‘22: A big takeaway from the conference is the importance of accountability. Our white peers could do a lot more to challenge the system because they have privilege that they didn’t earn. Especially if they claim to be allies for the black community. It is also not a black person’s job to educate a non-person of color about what’s racist and what’s not. The biggest takeaway from the conference overall is to stop being performative and start educating ourselves more deeply about the oppressive system.

Ed.: Are there other ways to stay in contact with communities beyond DC, in part to counteract these feelings of isolation?

Kalea ‘21: If there are other opportunities for school conferences, or even if Burke worked to create their own space for the DC area or the East Coast, it is always nice to interact with kids your own age – even over Zoom. I got to see different faces for a week, which doesn’t sound super exciting, but it felt like I was out in the world. Hopefully, in the near future, we have actual in-person conferences.
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