Upper school students attend diversity, social justice and equity issues conference in Anaheim


Prameela Kottapalli

Author and MacArthur Genius Grant Fellowship recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses his work as well as the history of oppression during the SDLC’s closing ceremony. The event took place in Anaheim from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2.

by Prameela Kottapalli, Winged Post Features Editor

Six students from the upper school attended the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) in Anaheim, California from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2.

The conference centered around the theme “Voices for Equity and Justice Now and in Every Generation” and took place alongside the NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC).

“We try to promote the [SDLC’s] commitment to the work of social justice and equity issues in our schools,” Diversity Committee faculty member, trip chaperone and PoCC attendee Pilar Agüero-Esparza said. “[That] really required bringing students who are interested to the SDLC. This is an opportunity for the students to meet other students who are interested in that work and to be able to participate in dialogue, because these are difficult conversations.”

The conference takes place annually in the fall. According to the NAIS website, the SDLC is a “multiracial, multicultural gathering of student leaders from across the U.S.” It profoundly affected the worldviews of the six students attending: senior Felix David-Roman, juniors Wynter Chaverst, Jennifer Hayashi and Prameela Kottapalli and sophomores Ayesha Baweja and Simar Bajaj.

“This experience meant so much to me and was worth more to me than my six years at Harker,” Wynter said.

Attendees engaged in meaningful discussions with their peers and collaboratively explored the concepts of equity and social justice. SDLC coordinators organized all 1600 attendees into randomly sorted “family groups” of 30 to 40 students.

Within these groups, students, led by the combined efforts of SDLC faculty and peer facilitators, took part in activities and open discussions concerning seven different cultural identifiers: race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, family structure and ability. Throughout each piece of the program, students upheld community norms such as embracing conflict, respecting confidentiality and speaking from the “I” perspective.

While family group sessions comprised the majority of the two conference days, students also met with affinity groups, through which they engaged in discourse with peers of the same identifiers. Affinity group identifiers included International, Asian and Asian Pacific Islander, Black and African Heritage, First Nations Heritage, Greater Middle Eastern Heritage, Latinx Heritage, Multiracial Heritage, Transracially Adopted, White and European Heritage and the LGBTQ+ community.

“Throughout the entire time, I learned that although we go through different things we all relate somehow, and we all bonded over how much we related,” Jennifer said. “It brought me a sense of belonging, and I’ve never felt so happy when it came to that. I loved my affinity group.”

Prameela Kottapalli
Teenagers and adults gather for the opening ceremony of the SDLC and PoCC. The two conferences ran concurrently.

Students also gained valuable insight from an array of keynote speakers. NAIS launched the conference on Thursday as keynote speaker Kimberlé Crenshaw delivered a speech to the combined audiences of the POCC and the SDLC. Crenshaw, an American civil rights lawyer and advocate and a professor at both the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and Columbia University, discussed the pattern of intersectionality–a term that Crenshaw coined in 1989–pertaining to gender and race.

On Friday morning, activist DeRay Mckesson delivered a speech delineating the “tools” that students could use to create dialogue and promote social justice within their respective communities. Author, journalist and MacArthur Genius Grant Fellowship recipient Ta–Nehisi Coates addressed attendees during Saturday’s closing ceremonies by engaging in a moderated discussion focusing on his New York Times bestselling book “Between the World and Me.”

The conference featured opportunities for students to address issues and affirm their identities in open-mic sessions and express themselves during mealtime talent shows.

Although the SDLC took place over a span of just two and a half days, attendees developed bonds with fellow high school students from across the country. Many students took advantage of social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat to keep in touch with the activists and allies they met at the conference.

Students came back from the conference with lifelong connections but also with a commitment to continuing the conversation beyond Anaheim by creating change on campus.

“SDLC is a great opportunity [to gain] exposure and training because our students come together to talk about what their schools are doing and not doing,” Agüero-Esparza said.

Next year’s SDLC will take place in Nashville, Tennessee from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1. Applications for upper school students are open to all and will be sent out by the diversity committee in spring.