December 10, 2020

Students Reflect on Inclusion & Community

Last week, a contingent of four student delegates attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), a multiracial meeting of high school student leaders from across the country and abroad, who come together to focus on community building, developing diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies, and strengthening cross-cultural connections. Oakwood has participated in the conference every year since it was first organized by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) 27 years ago.

Alongside the SDLC, Oakwood also took part in NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC), which provides development and networking opportunities for teachers, faculty, and independent school administrators who identify as POC and allies. This year’s contingent from Oakwood included trustees, members of the PODEI Leadership Team, faculty, staff, and administrators from both the elementary and secondary campuses.

Due to COVID-related restrictions, both conferences were held online this year, and featured a robust four-day schedule of workshops, speakers, and activities, including an SDLC keynote address from Lyla June, an indigenous scholar, musician, and organizer, who is pursuing her PhD in the revitalization of indigenous food systems.

42% of students at Oakwood’s secondary campus identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), however diversity at the conference is not limited to race—it encompasses ability, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and other social identifiers. The SDLC offers participants a safe space to spend time with people who share their particular identities, while at the same time exposing them to the experiences of those from different backgrounds.

I think it’s important that we remain open-minded and in conversation…

Keaton ‘22

Roxanna ‘24, said she appreciated the race-based “affinity groups,” where students who identify similarly could talk and bond in the virtual space. In her group, focused on those who identify as Latinx, participants played music, brought artifacts to share, and told stories about the backgrounds of their names. Characteristics that could inspire insecurity instead were met with comradeship by her fellow group members. “For me I can’t speak Spanish, so it was good to meet other people who were Latinx who couldn’t speak Spanish either,” she said. 

Nadiya ‘21, who identifies as African-American, also found comfort in the affinity groups, saying she appreciated the opportunity to “connect with people who look like you and have experiences like you. At private school the students are mostly White, so being able to share that experience is what I was looking for.” 

Keaton ‘22, who identifies as a white member of the LGBT community, was hoping to get outside her LA bubble, and felt inspired by the “family groups” which put together students with different backgrounds and experiences. “In comparison to some of the other stories, Oakwood is so progressive—not that we don’t need to work on diversity, but it was so interesting to hear their perspective of what goes on in their schools,” she said. “I think it’s important that we remain open-minded and in conversation with those from other states.”

Some of the diversity challenges independent schools are facing have been brought up on social media accounts like the “Black at Oakwood” Instagram page. Accounts like these allow students to share encounters with racial sensitivity and equity they have experienced and witnessed at school, and to propose solutions. These posts can be seen as an important tool through which students can call for accountability, not only from their classmates but from teachers and administrators as well.

In addition to bonding with other teens who they could relate to, and learning from the stories of those with different experiences, participants also spoke of learning leadership and diversity skills they could bring back to their home institutions. 

“It’s important to start with younger kids. It’s never too young to learn about race and ethnicity,” Roxanna said, who also stressed the importance of student-led initiatives. 

Nadiya co-runs two Black-identified affinity groups at Oakwood—CAAMASO (Connecting African, African American, and Multiracial African American Students at Oakwood and Divas of Color—and said a major motivation for participating in SDLC was to “get more info on how to be a better leader at my school for POC.”

 The conference is not meant to be an end in itself, but part of a process of transformation and equity that will extend well beyond this intensive digital conclave. “It was inspiring being around students that wanted to make a change,” says Nadiya, “who are willing to actually put in the work to do that.”