Diversity in action; reflections from the 2021 Student Diversity Leadership Conference


Ella Gincherman, Staff Writer/ Junior Editor

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into this year’s Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). I have attended quite a few conferences over the course of the pandemic, all with a leadership focus, and I found them to be informative, however not especially engaging. Not only were these conferences not very dynamic or engaging, but the ability to make real connections with my fellow peers, as well as educators, was little to none. Due to these previous experiences with virtual conferences, my expectations were rather low going into this year’s SDLC. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised as my experience over the course of this inspiring, educational, bond-building, and life changing week, may be one of the most impactful experiences I have ever had. 

The SDLC is an established institution with this being the 28th year that the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) has held it. According to the NAIS website, “The NAIS Online Student Diversity Leadership Conference is a multiracial, multicultural gathering of upper school student leaders (grades 9-12) from across the U.S. and abroad. SDLC focuses on self-reflecting, forming allies, and building community.” What I especially loved about the format was the way in which we, the student leaders, were able to interact with educators from a multitude of backgrounds and from a wide variety of independent schools from around the world. I was able to engage in important conversations with educators near and far about the fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion both in and outside our independent schools. I had the amazing opportunity to speak to our very own head of school, Rodney Glasgow, about issues occurring within SSFS itself, as well as had discussions with educators such as Savi Tuber (a leader from the Chicago area) on what ongoing issues surrounding diversity are occurring specficially within his independent school. Seeing students and educators from independent schools everywhere from California to Bermuda all with the same passions as I have towards diversity, equity, and inclusion being implemented in our schools and larger communities was truly inspiring. 

SDLC was a four day conference that included seminars, live streams, keynote speakers, and small group discussions. We attended activities such as the “Faculty Panel”, where students sat in on a discussion occurring between various educators about the different ways in which they are working to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion into their independent schools. In addition, our primary keynote speaker was Vanessa Miller, a remarkable learning and development professional who works as a trainer for the Hollaback! Movement, an initiative whose mission is to ultimately end all forms of harassment. What I loved the most about the presentation was the way in which she emphasized the responsibility that a bystander to an act of harassment holds, as well as the methodology she taught us on to intervene effectively and safely when such an event occurs. While every single experience from this conference was equally significant and educational, there were two activities that I found most impactful. 

At the beginning of the week we were placed in “Family Groups,” which were essentially a diverse collection of around 30 student leaders from a variety of schools around the country, as well as two adult educators to serve as the faculty facilitators of the group. These groups met daily for around three hours. On the first day of my family group (with our group being called the “Jada Pinkett Smith” group), one of my adult facilitators, Lauren, told us that, “by the end of this week, the 32 of us will be a real family.”  When I first heard this I thought she must have been joking. How could I be a part of a family with a bunch of strangers completely different from me, who I will only see through a computer screen over the course of the next few days? Well once again, I was pleasantly surprised. In these family groups we shared and discussed everything from the acceptance of religious freedom within our schools, to learning about each other’s core cultural identifiers that made each and everyone of us unique. My family group and the discussions we had taught me how to lean into discomfort, not run away from it. Together, we were able to formulate action plans of how to not only stop the minority oppression we see in our independent schools, but how to combat it on a larger scale.

Another feature that this conference provided me with was affinity groups, in which we were asked to attend the group that corresponded to an identity that we held and “could speak from the ‘I’ perspective about.”  I attended the LGBTQ+ affinity group, and it impacted me more than I ever expected. I have had a number of rejecting experiences from members of the LBGTQ+ community who I thought to be my “chosen family,” have outright told me that I do not belong with them and that my identity was not a real thing. So to go into an affinity group of over 400 queer kids and educators that were just like me, who accepted me, and taught me how to better accept others, is one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. I learned how much diversity there really is within the LGBTQ+ community itself, and how to defend and respect it. In the words of my friend Abby, “I’ve never seen so many queer people so happy to be themselves, and so happy for me to be myself, all in one place.”

The following phrase sums up one of the biggest things I took away from this experience: 

If I can work to change my school communities, then I can begin to work towards changing the world. 

This year’s Student Diversity Leadership Conference far exceeded my expectations and it allowed me to build new relationships and to better understand my own identity. It allowed me to see more into the struggles that different marginalized groups face, specifically at independent schools, and how to better fight against them. I am excited to share all that I learned and spread the sense of acceptance that I felt from SDLC with the SSFS community. I cannot wait until SDLC 2022!