In what has become a valued and motivating tradition, a group of Brewster faculty and administrators recently attended the People of Color Conference and deemed the experience “fantastic.” The People of Color Conference, known as PoCC, is the flagship of the National Association of Independent Schools' commitment to equity and justice in teaching, learning, and organizational development. Its mission is to provide a safe space for leadership, professional development, and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools. This year, the conference theme was “OUR: Reunited in Purpose. Elevating Our Worth, Our Agency, and Our Excellence.”
Brewster’s Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Chris Brown, noted that the impact of the conference, held in San Antonio November 30 through December 3, was even greater this year because the attendees could once again meet in person. “Brewster committed to sending six members of the community to PoCC,” Dean Brown said. He was joined by Assistant Head of School James Reilly, Arts Faculty and Team Leader Alicia Childers, English Teacher Simon Sardokie, Director of International Student Programs and World Languages Teacher Jason Wang, and World Languages Faculty Steven Davis.
“It was very powerful to hear the stories of others working in private schools, connecting with them, and learning from them,” Dean Brown, who is in his first year at Brewster, shared. “Not only was connecting with other schools a highly effective way to gain better DEI perspectives, but bonding with the BA team that attended couldn’t have been stronger!”
The group from Brewster took part in seminars, master classes, and workshops on diverse topics relevant to people of color in independent schools. They heard from speakers including award-winning Mariana Atencio, widely known for her 2017 TEDx talk “What Makes YOU Special?”; civil rights activist Amanda Nguyen, frequently credited with kickstarting the movement to stop violence against Asian Americans in the early months of the COVID pandemic; and Nikki Giovanni, a world renowned poet, commentator, activist, and educator with three decades of influence. “Having the time to delve deeply into these thought-provoking workshops with our own Brewster colleagues is incalculable,” Ms. Childers, a five-year attendee of PoCC, said. “I am a better person for sharing this experience with a fantastic group of human beings.”
“Generally speaking, independent schools do historically need help with the evolving idea of DEIJ work. Therefore, PoCC affirms the everyday experiences of people of color and people from the LGBTQ+ community in independent schools,” three-year Conference veteran Mr. Sarkodie said. “Having this Conference as a hub of like-minded individuals who are not always the dominant voices in their respective institutions can enable me and others to return to campus more energized to keep doing our best work in and out of the classroom.”
Mr. Sarkodie also noted that “PoCC is a great conference for independent school leaders and administrators to attend because it is a solid training ground for these individuals to learn more about how their often unconscious biases may or may not interfere with how they either choose to hire a candidate of color or how they professionally interact with students of color regarding discipline or other sensitive matters.”
Organizers of the Conference set a goal of helping attendees examine the interracial, interethnic, and intercultural climate of their schools, and connect the dots on how these aspects can have a positive impact on academic, social-emotional, and workplace performance outcomes for students and adults alike.
“The People of Color Conference is affirming, powerful, and transformative,” Ms. Childers said. “I have gained friends and colleagues from around the United States at this conference. We are all deeply and intrinsically motivated to do the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice—this conference fills my cup so to speak in regards to validating the work we have done, and how valuable the work continues to be for our communities.”
Each member of the Brewster team took away important lessons and insights in the four-day experience, and shared them upon their return.
PoCC Takeaways for Chris Brown:
- Private schools are very problem oriented and it is important to start becoming solution oriented.
- People dedicated to DEI work need the time to build strong programs. It is very similar to building a curriculum from the ground up.
- As a community, we all have a role to play in diversity work.
- There are new ideas for best practices for building a successful diversity program.
- It is important to become system thinkers as DEI leaders and recognize basic bias patterns. For example, minority groups are most often impacted by negative bias and stereotypes, with a tendency to receive fewer accolades for success, harsher criticism, evaluation and punishment for mistakes. While the opposite is true for dominant groups, who most benefit from positive bias and stereotypes with a tendency for greater accolades for success and leniency for mistakes.
PoCC Takeaways for Jason Wang:
- Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice we make everyday.
- As leaders of our school, we have to embrace, not just tolerate, diversity and diverse perspectives.
- Adequate and proper financial education is necessary for younger faculty, faculty members, and students of color in order to level the wealth gap between white allies and people of color.
- Culturally responsive pedagogy: Although colonialism has passed, coloniality may continue to survive as an inescapable power that places Europe and the collective West as the epistemic center of knowledge production. Therefore, we must encourage students from all cultural backgrounds to share their history, traditions, wisdoms, and perspectives in our community.
- Schools may over-focus on identifying problems in terms of racial justice and diversity/inclusion, but we need to talk more about solving these issues through real actions. In other words, don’t just identify and bring the issue; also provide actionable solutions.
PoCC Takeaways for Alicia Childers
- Listening is a creative “act.”
- Are independent schools sacrificing emotional wellbeing for rigor? What about the joy of work, and of people’s careers?
- We need to think about a post-pandemic reality for students.
- Without the “three Ps” we cannot do the DEI work: Those are practices of our school, policy and what the law says, and finally procedure/protocol. We need to ask questions like: Are we protecting marginalized groups in our schools? Who makes the procedures? Do our actions align with our school’s mission?
- Racial microaggressions and the reality of something called race lighting: When racelighted, people of color may begin to question their interpretation of reality and begin to wonder if they are being overly sensitive. Prolonged Racial stress is equivalent to PTSD symptoms, for students and faculty/staff.
- Lastly, and most important to me personally, the need for affinity spaces in schools. They are affirming, build resiliency, and offer authentic safety and comfort.
PoCC Takeaways for Simon Sarkodie
- Culturally responsive teaching is vital in independent schools because our general student body is significantly white and American. Yet, we at Brewster Academy have a very noticeable student body who have traveled from other parts of the world to receive a Brewster education and Wolfeboro experience. However, these international numbers still need to be bigger than other independent schools in more diverse areas. Therefore, when schools require their curriculum to embody a culturally responsive mandate, I imagine how such a collective requirement further enable the learning community on campus to develop multiple perspectives on the same matter.
- School administrative teams that lack the presence of faculty of color, in particular, may struggle to appear outwardly “inclusive.” For example, if an administrative team is holistically white and have similar regional experiences, there is a higher chance of making decisions that could unwittingly perpetuate racial stereotypes. When no one else in the room has personally experienced racism or microaggressions, these matters can balloon out of control even despite the good intentions of others. The benefit of having school administrators attend PoCC is simply to listen, engage, and eventually become desensitized to race and microaggressions.
- I recently came across the “Grading for Equity” topic, and I appreciate the many conversations I had with like-minded friends and colleagues at the Conference. In my daily practice as a classroom teacher, I desperately want to find ways to affirm international students (and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds) who do not readily connect with the material we teach in our curriculum. In fact, the lack of connection can become healthy because it should signal to teachers that there is room for growth and appreciation. Therefore, my interpretation of grading for equity hinges on me becoming more sensitive to the cultural experiences of my students because I believe in the potential of their futures. For example, in my English classes, I tend to run a small, discussion-based seminar where students debate topics and offer their own perspectives on the readings. A culturally responsive teacher also grades for equity because they must consider the reality that in some cultures, students do not feel comfortable debating topics with adults and therefore we must expand the scope of our in-class assessments.
PoCC Takeaways for Steven Davis
- Cultural humility: The important and fruitful nexus of global education and DEIJ reveals a possible avenue of continued progress and growth in relation to this work in our school community, particularly around the idea of cultural humility—a practice of self-reflection on how one’s own background and the background of others impact teaching, learning, research, creative activity, and engagement. It involves an ongoing process of self-exploration and self-critique combined with a willingness to learn from others. It means entering a relationship with another person with the intention of honoring their beliefs, customs, and values. Cultural humility means acknowledging differences and accepting that person for who they are.
- DEIJ involves subversion as a radical act—here, an act of emancipation and healing. In the context of learning organizations, it is the ‘queering’ and decentering of incumbent academic systems and structures to better inform practice and serve our community in ways that honor, lift, and trace the complicated personhood of all those folks with whom we interact, grow, study, and live. More generally, it operates within a frame of criticality that unapologetically foregrounds the recognition of trauma and the healing of wounds perpetuated by political, economic, academic, and cultural systems which have marginalized, oppressed, and disenfranchised.
- In today’s America, we tend to think of healing as something binary: Either we’re broken or we’re healed from that brokenness. But that’s not how healing operates, and it’s almost never how human growth works. More often, healing and growth take place on a continuum, with innumerable points between utter brokenness and total health.
- To engage in strategic work and priority building around DEIJ means above all to build more thoughtful curricular and programmatic architecture that aligns and sustains an alignment with institutional mission and vision. It is the weaving of DEIJ threads into the directional fabric of one’s community and the rendering visible of one’s commitment to the building of spaces, programs, and curricula across diverse contexts of the school that honor the wholeness of the lives of those in our care.
- Allyship: This is not self-defined—our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with. Also, selective solidarity exposes the self-serving impulse to bolster one’s ego (and ease one’s conscience), all while avoiding the necessarily difficult and costly practices of allyship for the cheap knock-off of performative compassion.
- To put DEIJ work into conversation with world language acquisition and pedagogy means to critically and thoughtfully examine and reflect upon the voices, narratives, artifacts, and cultural perspectives that show up in one’s classroom practice. It is unpacking the messy histories, identities, beliefs, peoples, and traditions that constitute the contours of a particular language alongside one’s students. It is providing opportunities for students to roll up their sleeves, dig in, find increased comfort with ambiguity, make connections, and see the fullness, breadth, and complexity of the human experience.
PoCC Takeaways for James Reilly:
- The work of DEIJ is and should be embedded within our work across domains (academics, co-curricular, and residential life). This starts in the recruiting and hiring process of teacher and continues through our daily work and programming.
- Having time devoted to this critical work away from campus and with committed colleagues deepens the comradery and collegiality. This energy and effort through direct, honest, and emotional conversations strengthens our commitment to the work of DEIJ on and off campus.
- Upon returning to campus and processing the week away and our current programming, I better understand a need for more opportunities around affinity groups here on campus. The time for students and staff to have purposeful conversations and intentional planned programming for affinity groups will positively impact our climate and culture.
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