Student Diversity Leadership: The Experience


Tasia Courts '20, DLC Liaison

Powerful. Impactful. Life-changing. Emotional. These are just a few words that were used by our DLC members to describe the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference they attended in Seattle, Washington, in early December.. 

Six St. Luke’s students and two faculty advisors traveled across the country to convene with 1,500 other students from independent schools around the country to discuss matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion. These six students, Janelle Johnson ‘20, Sadie Vehslage ‘20, Zaire Profit ‘21, Zion Profit ‘22, Aisha Memon ‘21, and Will Stamoulis ‘22, are members of the Diversity Leadership Council, which aims to facilitate discussions about diversity and its role in our school. The national conference, known as the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, also includes the People of Color Conference, which conducts similar activities and exercises for adults. Each year, it takes place in a different city in the country.

The theme of this year’s SDLC was “1954. 2019. With all deliberate speech. Integrating hearts and minds with the fierce urgency of now,” and the keynote speakers touched on matters connected to this theme in some way. The first speaker, Joy Degruy, a world renowned author and researcher, spoke on the phenomenon of post traumatic slave syndrome. This is the theory that modern-day African-Americans have adopted tendencies and habits that were required for survival in the times of slavery. For instance, she compared a white mother and black mother giving praise to their sons; oftentimes, when a white mother receives a compliment about her son, she shows pride and agrees with the praise, while when a black mother receives a compliment about her son, her first instinct is likely to downplay or undermine his strengths. This is a lingering behavior of the era of slavery because enslaved women, in order to prevent their sons from being taken away, would do whatever they could to make their children seem less profitable. Another keynote speaker was Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender man to swim in a college swim bracket at Harvard. His speech was centered around his transitioning journey and the internal struggle of not being in the right body. 

The group greatly values the connections that they made with the people in their family groups, affinity groups, and regional groups. Family groups are the smaller workshops that people return to throughout the conference as their “home base.” Affinity groups are groups formed around a shared identifier or common goals, like race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Regional groups are collections of schools in the same geographic area, and these groups meet to plan events and joint efforts. 

Will Stamoulis expressed his appreciation for the “instant connections formed by vulnerability.” At the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, a great deal of diversity work is done, so the days were long and filled with discussions, which required a certain level of vulnerability and openness. While the conference-goers cited the long days as a low point of the experience, they understand the importance of devoting time and energy to work that is vital to making our school communities more inclusive environments. These long days were made easier, though, by the amazing people that they met, who they still talk to regularly. Sadie Vehslage ‘20 will be going to New York City soon to celebrate the birthday of a family group friend. 

While most of the Council struggled to come up with their least favorite aspects of the experience, this came a bit more easily to Aisha Memon ‘21. Aisha identifies as Indian American, so she was a part of the Asian affinity group. When reflecting on one’s affinity group experience, most people use words like  “transformative” or “eye-opening,” but Aisha had a slightly different experience; rather than life-changing she described it as “a bit disappointing and kind of funny, in an ironic way.” 

She felt as though the Asian affinity group did not accurately portray the struggles many Asian Americans go through and ended up reverting to many of the same tropes that are commonly associated with the community, such as the model minority myth or an obsession with the college admissions process. She thought it was rather contradictory that the affinity group was affirming the harmful stereotypes that Asians are usually boxed into by outside communities. 

“It’s bad enough to be thought of as just a math lover or college obsessed by other people, but when we do it to ourselves, it’s just sad,” said Aisha, while recounting her experience. 

During the majority of the conference, South Asians and East Asians were lumped together. “The general category of Asians can sometimes be problematic,”  remarked Aisha. “ In order to come together, we need to recognize and appreciate the differences within the Asian community and not be afraid to acknowledge them when necessary.” 

While Aisha’s situation is not one that most people have to go through, especially at SDLC, it raises an important set of questions: Does our approach to diversity include everyone’s voices and perspectives? At what times and in what spaces should we hear some people’s voices, as opposed to everyone’s? How can we change the black and white nature of equity and inclusion?

If after reading this article, you feel that you want to participate in the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, the Diversity Leadership Council, or St. Luke’s diversity work in general, here are a few tips and opportunities:

If you want to be on the Council…

  • Applications are sent to all sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the spring, so apply! In your application and interview, be honest and authentic. No one will negatively judge you.
  • If you’re not super involved in the work yet, don’t let that prevent you from applying. This is a great first step for getting involved.
  • Don’t think you can’t be involved if you don’t fall into certain minority groups.
  • Even if you don’t make it onto the Council, don’t let it deter you from doing social justice work in the SLS community

If you want to participate in SLS-affiliated equity and inclusion efforts…

  • Go to the Connecticut Student Diversity Leadership Conference! It is the same concept as the national conference, but it is open to only Connecticut Independent Schools. The date is April 19, 2020 at Choate Rosemary Hall, and St. Luke’s provides transportation for student attendees. The sign up will be sent out by Mr. Griffa as we get closer to the conference date.