For one week in late fall of 2021, five Commonwealth students were excused from classes—but they didn't pause their education or their commitment to our community. Rather, gathered together at school, they entered into a compelling virtual dialogue at the National Association of Independent Schools' Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC).
This annual event brings together independent school students from diverse backgrounds to discuss identity and inclusion in their communities. Avery ’23, Bella ’24, Halle ’24, Genevieve ’24, and Tien ’24 represented Commonwealth at the most recent conference, which centered on the theme "Believing and Belonging in Our Schools: Reckoning With Injustice, Reconciling With Love."
The SDLC experience combines inter-student connection with personal reflection. During their time at the conference, Commonwealth participants joined affinity groups that introduced them to others with a shared identity, such as LGBTQ+ or Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) students. Joined by a facilitator, they also talked in "family groups" about relevant issues—for instance, how to best use school funding to build a diverse student body—and heard from speakers in large-group workshops. They finished each day with guided writing, jotting down their takeaways and ideas that could be implemented at Commonwealth.
Though they remained physically in the school, the students built community with hundreds of others through virtual calls and impactful conversations. "The engagement and energy was palpable," reflects Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lisa Palmero McGrath, who coordinated students' conference experience. "Every day, our students left thinking about what they learned and what they wanted to bring back and share with our community."
Shifts in Perspective
The group-based structure of SDLC expanded the Commonwealth participants' understanding of social and societal issues in ways that simply would not be possible otherwise. "People brought up points that I had never thought about," says Avery, who valued the chance to meet other passionate student leaders and learn from their experiences. "[They] offered me both a greater understanding of not only experiences different from mine but experiences that were very similar in ways I didn't necessarily expect."
Tien remembers sketching out "areas of life...like religion, race, sexual orientation" to create a personalized "identity molecule." The exercise compelled him to consider those many facets of identity—like "which area affected us the most, and what's the first thing people see about you"—in a new light.
Students also grappled with many of the roadblocks to inclusive community that have appeared in independent schools. "It was fun at times to share my culture at affinity groups," Tien says, "but family groups....opened my eyes to what's happening to other independent schools and some problems that have [arisen]." These critical reflections helped participants develop new solutions and consider what's already working. Ultimately, Tien says, "It just made me grateful to have a community here [at Commonwealth] where I feel open."
Returning with Lessons Learned
What will these students bring back to Commonwealth from their SDLC experiences—both the challenging and the affirming? On an individual level, the conference enabled them to build the skills needed to welcome others and influence day-to-day interactions. "I feel much better equipped for handling negative situations, putting up [healthy] boundaries, and being an ally to my peers than I did before the week of SDLC," says Avery. "I'm grateful to everyone who took the time to pass on that knowledge."
Following SDLC, Tien looked outward to Commonwealth as a whole, particularly the school's discussion-friendly atmosphere. In his view, this element of Commonwealth's culture mirrors the inviting gatherings at SDLC. "You have things such as recess, where the whole community gets together and we listen to each other," he says, "and class meetings, or even advisor meetings, where we practice our trust with each other."
One more practice from the conference participants hope to further at introduce Commonwealth: affinity groups. Building on the precedent set by Commonwealth's Gender-Sexuality Alliance, Ms. McGrath has been working with students to form new groups reflecting different facets of identity, including racial and ethnic backgrounds. Students built relationships at SDLC with others from like identities, and Ms. McGrath had a similarly empowering experience. She attended the NAIS's People of Color Conference concurrently, and she found herself "tearing up" as she watched her meetings "fill with Black and Brown faces," she says.
"The Zoom spaces all came alive in the chat boxes and in the meeting rooms as we nodded, snapped, waved, and unmuted ourselves," Ms. McGrath recalls. "And though the virtual space could not replace the joy and energy that comes with being physically together among educators and DEI practitioners of color, the experience was still educational and inspirational."
That feeling of belonging—of knowing one's voice has been heard—is perhaps one of the greatest takeaways these participants could receive from SDLC. As Avery came to realize, "even when pieces of our identities might make us feel isolated or alone, there are others going through very nearly the same thing—and I was able to connect with some of those people." Students' hopes for nurturing such connections at Commonwealth, whether through open dialogue or affinity groups, is sure to shape the school for the better in the years to come.