Contemporary and legendary social justice activists turned out for the 2016 National Association of Independent School Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) attended by six Upper School (US) students and approximately 1,000 other teenagers from across the country in Atlanta, Georgia, last month.
Bryan Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative founder whose work has appeared in two fall senior English electives, launched the opening ceremonies on December 8 with a 75-minute talk Alia Rizvi ’18 described as an inspiring call to acknowledge and address injustice within the justice system.
“He was absolutely fabulous on stage,” Alia said, citing Mr. Stevenson’s engaging storytelling and his honesty in expressing the discrimination he and his clients as a public interest lawyer have faced. “The crowd was mostly made up of people who identified as a minority in some way, so many of us could relate and have genuine empathy.”
With the theme “Dreaming Out Loud: Waking Up to a New Era of Civil Rights,” this year’s SDLC was held in the Omni CNN Center Hotel and featured a series of discussions and lectures that focused on gender, class, race, sexual orientation, religion, ableism, and ageism. SDLC aims to help student leaders develop communication skills across cultures as well as strategies for achieving social justice, according to the event’s website.
The school’s attendees this year were Alia, Menen Crawlle, Rabia Kassim (all ’18), Matt Monsalve, Kingsley Umemba, and Josh Perez (all ’17), who were selected from a pool of over a dozen applicants for their level of commitment to diversity initiatives, Director of Multicultural Services Lewis Bryant said.
“SDLC is for students who care about social justice issues, care about changing their school for the better for everyone—[students] who care about educating their peers and community and about issues relating to diversity,” he added.
Speaking to both the SDLC participants and their faculty counterparts for the People of Color Conference (PoCC) beginning later across the street, Mr. Stevenson identified concrete ways to make a difference in the world, among them interacting with people in disaffected communities to better understand their problems, working together as a unified group to overcome hardships, and pursuing a good education, Alia said.
Josh, who along with Kingsley had recently completed Mr. Stevenson’s book Just Mercy in English Teacher Sarah Getchell’s course Law, Lit, and Social Justice, said Stevenson’s message was even more powerful with the passion he brought in person.
“It gave me reassurance and hope that the incarceration problem in the U.S. will be solved one day,” Josh said.
Students also met daily with “family groups,” in which they discussed topics centered on diversity, and “affinity groups,” in which they spoke about identifying as black, Latinx, Asian, multicultural, white, LGBTQ+, and more.
Matt said a 14-year-old boy’s spoken word poetry performance about ableism left the strongest impression on him.
“In his piece, he said, ‘Let’s stand up,’ and I automatically assumed he meant we as a generation should stand up against injustice,” Matt said. “But then the boy continued with, ‘Let’s stand up for the boy in the wheelchair who can’t.’ This is a line I will carry with me forever.”
Alia said the supportive and expressive attendees, who cheered and clapped for everyone, made her feel as though she were part of a big, loud family.
“At the LGBTQ+ affinity group, they had opened the space for people who had never come out before to come out, and every time a person went up, whether confident or in tears, there would always be people they didn’t necessarily know offering hugs and telling them how brave they were,” she said.
The three-day event went on to feature many other speakers, including Brittany Packnett, vice president of national community alliances for Teach For America, and Zak Ebrahim, author of The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice.
To close out the conferences, the PoCC faculty rejoined the students for a ceremony honoring American civil rights activists Christine King Farris, Martin Luther King Jr.’s only living sibling; Hank Aaron, a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer who advocated for minority hiring in the sport; and Congressman John Lewis, one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, who exhorted audience members to “be a troublemaker, but be a troublemaker for good.”
“They were good role models from past generations for the kids,” Mr. Bryant said, “and the adults got to see their heroes.”
Mr. Bryant said he hopes students will use the leadership and facilitation skills, broader understanding of diversity, and developed sense of empathy for others gained at SDLC during Community Day in January and in their everyday lives at school.
“I’ve taken kids to lots of different conferences and workshops, and none of them come as close to affecting young people the way that this conference does,” he said.