My New York City private school has supported faculty and staff attendance at NAIS’s People of Color Conference for many years. For those unfamiliar with it here is their overview:
The NAIS People of Color Conference is the flagship of the National Association of Independent Schools’ commitment to equity and justice in teaching and learning. The mission of the conference is to provide a safe space for leadership and professional development and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools. PoCC equips educators at every level, from teachers to trustees, with knowledge, skills, and experiences to improve and enhance the interracial, interethnic, and intercultural climate in their schools, as well as the attending academic, social-emotional, and workplace performance outcomes for students and adults alike.
While POC colleagues, knowing of my commitment to the work, suggested I go I hadn’t, thinking it wasn’t a space for white allies. Finally, this year I decided to go, learning that there would be a place for me to learn and grow in my white allyship, and feeling the greater and greater urgency of the work we need to do regarding white supremacy and race in our schools. I am so grateful to my school’s commitment to sending any faculty or staff member who wants to go. I believe we were between 30 and 40 strong. Additionally, a group of our high school students attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference that runs in tandem with POCC.
It was great to see how this conference is so fortifying, empowering, and so much more for my independent school POC colleagues. Connecting, reconnecting, feeling seen, heard, having a safe space to testify, and so much more was going on. The celebration of POC heads of school was wonderful to see — so many standing on the stage. And even more, to start this coming year, one of them the remarkable Lisa Yevette Waller who is leaving my school to head the Berkeley Carroll School. (Happy for them and her, but she is going to be missed terribly:)
Here are some of the workshops and sessions I attended:
- The Opening Session with wonderful speakers including journalist Lisa Ling.
- Black Boys Doing What? Evaluating, Selecting, and Incorporating Children’s and YA Lit Featuring Black Boys with educators Dr. Kim Parker and Jack Hill. This was an outstanding workshop — if you get an opportunity to see these two, run!
- Old School Diversity to 21st Century Cultural Competency featuring Rosetta Lee. Lee had done work at my school and so I knew this session would be worthwhile. I wasn’t disappointed — so much to process in what she said and shared.
- Black Male “Privilege”: The Highs and Lows of Hyper Visibility. This was perhaps the most significant workshop for me, both because of what was said, but also because most of the panelists were current or former colleagues. Brave, honest, insightful — these are just a few of the words I have for this important panel. Thank you Brandon Guidry, The Berkeley Carroll School (NY); William Fisher, Trinity School (NY); Kenneth Hamilton, The Dalton School (NY); Dwight Vidale, Riverdale Country School (NY).
- Marian Wright Edelman’s keynote “The State of America’s Children” was such a call to action as well as heartening as she shows so much confidence in our being able to make the future better at a time when it feels overwhelming to do so.
- Marc Lamont Hill‘s closing keynote. With only a few wry references to his firing by CNN a few days earlier, he focused in on what this audience needed to hear. He was fierce, strong, and fortifying.
However. I’m not sure about my being there as a white ally. I had expected to be one of a few, but there were 1400 white folk among the over 6,000 attendees. That seemed bizarre to me, but it was explained to me was that many private schools have few diverse staff and faculty so roles such as diversity directors are held by white folk. Another reason I observed was that administrators were attending (certainly a good thing) and they are still very white overall. And then there were many whites attending because their schools, like mine, are committed to doing the work. So I can’t fault the reasons we were all there, but it is still troubling to me that a conference for POCs was so full of white folk.
Related to this is that I had very mixed feelings about the white affinity group meetings. These were enormous — over 1000 people so kudos to the planners for managing that so well. Still, for all the warning of discomfort, I didn’t feel much at all. I get that we white folks there were in different stances and situations, but I have to say I was disappointed. I’d been told that white allies at the conference were farther along on paths of action, but the work we did in the white affinity group meetings felt very cautious and overly sensitive to participants. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I wonder how much participants came away with that will be helpful when we go back to our schools. It was difficult. Some were overly complacent about fellow white colleagues, others didn’t seem to register microaggressions, and still others were depressingly unaware about all sorts of things. It felt all incredibly careful, scripted, and vague to me. Not sure what the answer is, but if that many white folks are going to be coming, there must be something more that can be done?
And as for coming — I don’t plan to go again. I thought it was amazing and I got a huge amount out of it, but this is NOT a conference for white person me. It needs to be a People of Color Conference and that isn’t what I am. The importance for independent school POCs to come together was visible at every moment. That needs to be honored and respected overall.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go to POCC, to spend time with colleagues I didn’t know (at the airport and other moments:), to learn, to stretch, to force my thinking, to undo ideas, and so much more. Thank you to my school and NAIS for this important event.