My Experience at the Student Diversity Leadership Conference
Dr. Jessica Perez del Toro
Delegates (left to right) Erisa R., Anelise P., Abbey P., Danielle D., Olivia Q., and Shania B. stand in front of the conference building in Nashville, Tennessee.
By Olivia Q.
December 17, 2018
Last Day of SDLC, Nashville, Tennessee
“If I walk into the school and everybody in the school don’t look like me, you don’t love me. If I walk into the school and the only people that look like me--and there’s dignity in all labor-- but if the only people that look like me are the security staff, and the cafeteria staff, and the maintenance staff, you don’t love me. If the curriculum doesn’t talk about my tradition, my rituals, my practices, my identity, except for one week or one month a year, you don’t love me.”
The moment Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) keynote speaker Dr. Marc Lamont Hill spoke those words, my tears fell to the floor of the conference room. At that moment, the tears I shed represented everything that I feel as a minority at an independent school: loneliness, sadness, anger. When I attended SDLC, all those feelings dissipated.
I attended SDLC in Nashville, Tennessee with five other students: Shania B., ’21, Danielle D., ’21, Erisa R., ’21, Anelise P., ’20, and Abbey P., ’20. At its foundation, SDLC is a conference where high school students across the country gather to talk about how we can encourage diversity in schools by being empathetic towards people with different identities.
In conjunction with the students attending SDLC, ten Westridge faculty members-- Amber Arbet, Kashmir Blake, Kendis Heffley, Zoe Muñoz, Jessica Pérez del Toro, Anthony Scearce, Edwin Scott, Regina Wei, Megan Whitaker, and Molly Yurchak-- traveled to Tennessee to attend the People of Color Conference (POCC). POCC is the adult version of SDLC. Instead of staying in family groups, attendees visit various workshops and discuss topics such as how “we can influence schools to be more open to promote people of color to administrative positions, where students can see someone that looks like them at a higher level,” as described by Scearce.
The majority of my day at SDLC was spent with my family group, a random grouping of students from all over the country. As a family group, we talked about our experiences with diversity in school. We discussed social trends and learned about the common identifiers: gender, socioeconomic status, age, family structure, and race/ethnicity.
I was shocked by the people who had gathered there. One, because I had never seen so many black and latinx students in my life, and two, because they came from all different types of backgrounds. They shocked me because their lives were incredibly distinct from my life and the lives of the people who surround me. I remember every single one of them.
Genesis, a taciturn but funny bisexual Ecuadorian girl from Queens
Lyla, a sarcastic and unique French girl attending an international school in Boston
Anthony, a reserved but kind boy raised in the projects and whose mom had recently purchased her first ever home
Artie, an honest and quirky trans male of color with an amazing aptitude for drawing
And many more accepting, beautiful, people.
For days after the SDLC trip, and even now, I felt emotionally raw. My heart ached--no-- my soul ached because it felt as if a part of itself was missing. The part of my soul that I had lost were the people that I met at SDLC, my family. They weren’t just a “family” in name; they were a family in truth. I missed, and miss, them so much because they were incredibly candid about their identities and backgrounds. One boy told me about his mother’s debilitating physical ailment and his parents’ disapproval of his trans identity. Another told me about their struggle to determine if they had the right to claim their 25 percent Filipino heritage in comparison to their 75 percent white heritage.
They told me things about their lives that one wouldn’t usually tell a person they had just met. My family was honest and empathetic. They genuinely tried to relate to others’ experiences and to offer kindred advice. I bonded with them because they made the effort to understand me, to know me.
Participants in SDLC, some of whom I had only known for three days, traveled across the country to learn how to improve their schools, to learn how to improve the lives of students of color. They had the will and courage to make an impact, even if it meant ruffling a few feathers. They asked the question, “How can I make my school a diverse environment?” When I asked myself this question, I didn’t have a clue to what the answer was. It wasn’t until the end of SDLC that I realized that the answer is empathy. The answer is to try to understand others, to relate to others, to know others. Once we understand the experiences of others different from ourselves, we can truly start to build a diverse community.
Being surrounded by people who were like me and unlike me was a legitimizing experience. Legitimizing because others at SDLC shared my experience of being a minority at an independent school. I didn’t feel alone in my emotions. I could be angry. I could be sad. I could be jovial. I had a right to my emotions without judgment from others. In fact, the other students shared in my emotions, they supported me without apprehension. They shared the same experience of not seeing themselves in administration. They shared the same experience of seeing everyone else’s culture in the curriculum except their own. They shared the experience of feeling non-existent.
Don’t get me wrong; I love my school. I loved it when I came in 7th grade, and I love it now. I acknowledge the school’s efforts to try and make Westridge a diverse environment, and I commend them for those efforts. But diversity isn’t just about seeing kids of color in the student body or in school magazines and campus banners. Diversity is about students seeing themselves, seeing themselves and all aspects of their identity, in the place where they grow most as a person--school. I don’t come to school to just learn about English, history, and science; I come to learn about the world. And if my community doesn’t look like the rest of the world, how will I be ready to enter it?