Student Diversity Leadership Conference Expands Horizons

On December 4, six Visitation students joined Visitation Diversity Co-Coordinators Raynetta Jackson-Clay and Peggy Hamilton to fly to Seattle, WA for the two-day intensive Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools. Seniors Niani Benjamin, Sophia Isacco, Ruth Hailu, Tatsie Masters, Beth Merga, and Nancy O'Gara joined nearly 1,600 high school student leaders from around the country and the world for the multiracial, multicultural gathering.

Led by both adult and peer facilitators, SDLC focuses on three core areas: self-reflection, forming allies, and building community. Students who attend develop skills they can carry back to their schools to strengthen their communities, including cross-cultural communication skills, effective strategies for social justice practice through dialogue and the arts, and foundations of allyship and networking principles. The conference includes speakers, large group sessions, "family groups," affinity groups, and regional groups; this mix allows for learning as well as intimate conversation.

“I was kind of nervous because there were so many people,” Beth Murtha shared. “At Visi, we don’t all have the same opinions, but because we know each other, it’s easier to share. I was wondering how other people were going to take my opinions, but once I got there it felt so open. ... It was freeing sharing opinions with people who look more like me and it was validating hearing from other people of color...who are at predominantly white institutions.” Beth further explained that the exercises she did at SDLC and the in-depth discussions she had with students from around the world made her both realize all she had in common with them and appreciate others’ different perspectives: “It made me more sensitive to why other people might think differently than me - we all have different lives.”

The opening speaker for the conference was Dr. Joy DeGruy, an internationally recognized researcher and educator whose work focuses on “the intersection of racism, trauma, violence, and American chattel slavery.” Her most recent book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, explores how the past influences the present and highlights lessons individuals and society can glean from history to lay the foundation for healing today.

Senior Ruth Hailu was absorbed by Dr. De Gruy’s talk - “I would have been fine listening to her talk for two days.” - and was particularly struck by a story she shared about “Lucy,” a 3.2 million year fossil of a pre-human bipedal found in Ethiopia, which is Ruth’s home country. The people of Ethiopia named the fossil Dinkinesh, which means “you are marvelous" in the Amharic language. Dr. De Gruy explored how the identity of the fossil - and our understanding of our humanity - was influenced by the naming of it.

Like Beth, Ruth also felt that one of her greatest experiences at SDLC was “being able to see from other people’s perspectives and how they differed from mine. … It was good to understand that my perspective on the world isn’t the only unique one.”

When asked what she was empowered to do at Visitation following her time at SDLC, Ruth shared, "[I will ] try my best to recreate the sense of love, understanding, peace, and belonging with the rest of my peers. ...[W]e have to realize that diversity is not a political issue but a...human issue. ...[D]iversity is not a democratic or a liberal view ...[it is a] human view that should be valued and understood."

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