Moving Conference Once Again Inspires Brewster Faculty

Moving Conference Once Again Inspires Brewster Faculty
Suzanne Morrissey

Each year, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) hosts the People of Color Conference (PoCC), which aims to expand equity and justice in teaching, learning, and organizational development. Attendees from Brewster in recent years have called the Conference moving, eye opening, energizing, and affirming, and this year’s attendees—Alicia Childers, Lorraine Connell, Steven Davis, Simon Sarkodie, Emily James, and Lindsay Libby (above, clockwise from top left)—were no exception. 

The PoCC strives to provide a safe space for leadership, professional development, and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools. Although the 2021 conference, guided by the theme “Reckoning with Impacts, Rolling with Just Intent,” was held virtually, the lineup of workshops and classes was strong. Our educators took full advantage of the weighty topics offered by experts and notable speakers, including Indigenous studies scholar Dr. Yuria Celidwen, coach and executive counselor Rajkumari Neogy, educator and author Adrian Michael Green, and NeuroLeadership Institute researcher Dr. Michaela Simpson.  

Instructional Support teacher Lindsay Libby attended six of the Conference sessions, including Healing-Centered Engagement, How Colorblind Racism Manifests in Independent Schools, Radical Harmony, and Social Justice Summit: Healing and Wholeness as Love, Power, and Resistance. 

She says the PoCC was eye-opening and genuinely honest: “The ideals of the conference were inspirational. Especially in a world living through a pandemic, the conference’s overall message of belonging brought tears to my eyes.”

Bolstered by the discussions, Ms. Libby came away with a deeper understanding of a concept she feels Brewster handles very well: restorative justice. “We focus on repairing relationships here, not punitive discipline,” she says, adding that she walked away from the experience with thoughts that will continue to inspire her, including “Life isn’t transactional, it is relational.”

Organizers of the Conference, now entering its fourth decade, describe PoCC as a unique experience that “supports the complex dynamics of independent school life and culture and the varied roles people of color play and experience in these settings.” This year’s Conference, which was held November 29-December 3, 2021, also introduced participants to the difference between racism and colorism, the word “fearotypes” (a combo of “fear” and “stereotypes”), and the “Wheel of Power/Privilege,” created by noted Canadian educator Sylvia Duckworth (see graphic, below). 

French teacher Steven Davis’s sessions included Exploring Our Radical Imagination: Teaching Afrofuturism in the Classroom, How Our Grading Undermines Equity and What We Can Do About It, Truth-Telling: A Strategy for Teaching Counternarratives, Race in America: Creating an Anti-Racist Humanities Course That Directly Tackles Racialization, and Unsticking Stagnant Content: Pedagogical Approaches for Inclusion and Solidarity. 

“I am terribly grateful to Brewster for affording me the opportunity to attend PoCC,” Mr. Davis shares, noting that he sees the conversation around DEI in independent schools shifting away from diversity and toward the notion of belonging. “As one of the keynote speakers this year, John A. Powell, defined it, ‘Belonging or being fully human means more than having access. It entails being respected at a basic level that includes the rights to both co-create and make demands on society. It is more joining a club—it is about co-constructing and co-owning structures to belong’.” 

Mr. Davis thinks this is a concept that Brewster can embrace. “Bearing this important repositioning in mind, I think we have an opportunity as an institution to begin to transition our focus away from what can often seem like a game of sheer numbers and the institutional allure of rich human exposure toward ensuring that we are crafting an academic program and spaces that invite students in and foster within them a feeling of being an active part of something greater than themselves.”

How does Brewster do this? “From decolonizing our curriculum to creating meaningful affinity groups for all of our community members on campus,” Mr. Davis says, “the sessions carried the general throughline of decentering a single narrative in independent schools to set the stage for a reframing of the institutional story to include a multitude of richer, more diverse, more inclusive set of lived experiences, however uncomfortable such a journey towards change may prove to be.”

That message of belonging also resonated with science faculty member Lorraine Connell, and on a very personal level. “I left my previous job because I no longer felt like I was a member of the community, so when the speakers shared this I was hooked,” she says. “It has always been my mission to develop student voice and leadership, and I am only able to do that by creating a sense of belonging.” Mrs. Connell was also moved during one of the PoCC’s storytelling sessions. “A young lady shared her story of attending a school in the South with mostly white peers. She shared her last name with a wealthy white student, because her family was owned by that white family years ago,” she shared. “It was incredibly powerful. I was also really struck by the leadership sessions, empowering students to share their voices and their stories now and after graduation to help the institution grow. In order to make real change the institution has to be ready for radical honesty, which may be really hard to hear or accept. But until you accept your faults, you can’t realize the changes that need to be made.”

“This conference was certainly a privilege for me,” says Mrs. Connell, “and because of that I absorbed as much knowledge and guidance from the sessions as I could. Each of the featured speakers was incredibly powerful.” She noted that the virtual format did have its perks: It offered the chance to watch the recordings of sessions she could not attend live. Virtual sessions also meant a chance to use the chat feature. “So many resources were shared via the chat,” she says, “and I was able to capture each of those resources and can now review them.” She’s picked up a new podcast to listen to on teaching tough history, for example. “It not only shares the history, but why and how educators can teach the topics in their classrooms.” 

Mr. Davis hopes that by taking the conference’s theme of “reckoning with impacts” to heart and decentering traditional narratives and institutional practices will launch community transformation—and eventually become an unwitting part of everything Brewster does, impacting the daily lives of all those in our care. “From my vantage point,” he says, “living out our mission to ‘prepare diverse thinkers for lives of purpose’ calls us to not only passively accept this critical shift in our thinking, but wholly invite and embrace it. If we seek to create spaces where all belong and feel the potential to actively participate in our community life and spaces, we must put in the work of creating systemic structures, spaces, and practices that reflect that in the most meaningful manner possible.”

The 2022 People of Color Conference will take place (hopefully in person!) in San Antonio, Texas November 28-December 2.

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