Reflections on the NAIS People of Color Conference

Post Date: December 16th, 2018
Brendan Largay, Head of School

In late November, Belmont Day sent its largest group of faculty to date to the National Association of Independent School’s People of Color Conference (PoCC) in Nashville, Tennessee. Each year, this conference always proves extremely impactful on our attendees and, by extension, the entire community. This week, some of the twelve colleagues who attended share their reflections on this important opportunity for professional and personal development.

Brendan Largay, Head of School

This was the second year I attended the People of Color Conference as the Head of Belmont Day School. As it was last year, the conference was intensely powerful and challenged me both personally and professionally as I was called to investigate the structures at Belmont Day that we hope provide safety and a strong voice for any marginalized population within our community. I was fortunate to watch the BDS faculty and trustees who were also in attendance shine in roles of leadership as presenters, coordinators, and participants throughout our time in Nashville.

This year, more than last, I felt quite acutely just how important this space for folks of color is, both to them and to our institutions. Predominantly—and there are countless statistics that reinforce this—independent schools are white institutions, and our teachers of color arrive each day living the experience of being a minority within our school walls. PoCC provides a majority space for teachers and administrators of color. It honors the challenges of their lived minority experience, asks schools to identify and evaluate the practices that perpetuate that experience, and provides a necessary refueling of resiliency, strength, and affirmation before returning to their predominantly white schools.

I was reminded that I have blind spots as a leader of this institution that I must actively discover and unpack. I was reminded that systems in independent schools were founded on ideals of exclusion that we must intentionally and actively disrupt. The conference reinforced the notion that while we proudly tout the statistic that 34% of our students identify as students of color, the real validity in that number lives in the ways those students are received, seen, and celebrated throughout their time at Belmont Day. I was reminded of the importance that a loving community can have in the life and experience of a student, family, or employee of color at Belmont Day and that our work in providing such a community must be tireless. It was an honor and a privilege to be included in this year’s PoCC cohort.

Minna Ham, Lower School Head

This was my eighth year attending the People of Color Conference. My first PoCC, in Chicago in 2002, was transformational for me. I had never been in a space that created so much camaraderie and kinship. The Asian/Asian American affinity group reminded me of the groups that existed in college and I had been yearning for in my professional life.

Attending PoCC in Nashville with a new group of colleagues was a wonderful experience. Discovering connections, having space to share stories, learning and growing shoulder-to-shoulder made each speaker, workshop, and event even more powerful and relevant.

This conference gives participants opportunities to grow their teaching practice, their leadership skills, and their understanding of systems. You get the chance to look both inward and outward with a clearer lens. I appreciate that I can think critically about my identity and how it impacts my work.

Betty Chu Pryor, Kindergarten Teacher

This was the eighth year I have attended the People of Color Conference, and up until now, I have never been able to find the appropriate words to express what this conference means to me. When family members, colleagues, and interested parents ask me about the impact of the conference, I always do my best to describe how the speakers move me, what the workshops teach me, and how the affinity group sessions transform my relationships at home and work. Still, the words that I sought to accurately pinpoint the significance that the conference plays in my personal and professional lives had eluded me until this year when various speakers and presenters referred to PoCC as “a sanctuary.”

Indeed, this conference has been a safe haven for me each time I have attended. It is akin to a homecoming or a reunion with family. While I have attended numerous conferences in my 18-year career as a teacher about curriculum or the craft of teaching, no other conference has made me feel more visible, more heard, more fulfilled, and more validated than PoCC. While we only see each other on an annual basis and I do not personally know all of the 6,000-plus attendees, there is a profound sense of kinship when the doors open for the keynote speaker each year and I stand looking out at thousands of faces that remind me of my own. I am no longer the only one or one of a few. There is no longer the need to shed some of my identity at the door. I can be my authentic self with this oversized extended family that has gathered for a four-day celebration, which is often marked by tears, self-reflection, joy, curiosity, and honest conversation. While our experiences are never identical, there is comfort knowing that we can be champions for each other while at the conference and even beyond.

One of the most moving moments for me this year was when Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the memoir, Real American, and a former dean at Stanford University, spoke about her emotional journey growing up as a biracial child in America. Haims and I grew up under different circumstances, yet I can empathize what it means to bridge two worlds even though for me, it has been carrying the identities of Chinese and American. Lythcott-Haims read from her book and broke down her experiences into nine key stages, and the one that hit home the most for me was when she described the lowest of lows—a “sunken pit of self-loathing.” She articulated how she felt uncomfortable and ashamed being black at various points at her life, which spontaneously unearthed my feelings of self-pity and humiliation stemming from being Chinese throughout childhood and even in my adult life. Imagine wondering why your third grade teacher assumed you could not read because one of your parents was not proficient in English and placed you in the lowest reading group, even though the school eventually tested you and realized you belonged in the gifted class. Imagine scrutinizing every job offer and professional rejection that comes your way because you are uncertain if it is because of or in spite of where you or your family were born. While I am proud of my heritage and my background, these nagging moments of self-doubt still occasionally haunt me at unexpected times.

Now that I am raising biracial children, I am even more attuned to the implications of race relations and identity. After a long journey home both literally and figuratively, my husband and I sat down to catch up on Sunday evening after my return from Nashville. Among other topics, he sought my advice on how to handle a situation that my five-year-old daughter had admitted to participating in while I was gone. According to my daughter, she and two of her kindergarten classmates were in the bathroom and were using their fingers to make their eyes appear slanted. Although the details are vague about who verbalized it first or the motive for their actions, the students soon unanimously declared that they were making their eyes “look like a little Chinese girl.”

Upon hearing this story, the first emotions that overcame me as a parent and educator were that of disdain and shock. How could my sweet and compassionate daughter be involved in such an offensive act after all of our candid conversations about differences, the multitude of multicultural books in our home library, our diverse social circles, and my training in diversity, equity, and inclusion? Did she even understand that she was making fun of her own people? Or had some other children used this gesture to label her at some point and she was repeating it without fully understanding its meaning and impact? Here I was, feeling reborn and revitalized from a conference that inspires me to examine my identity and rise above microaggressions and racism when my daughter’s revelation threatened to set me back into that ditch of self-loathing. I had been teased throughout my elementary school years by classmates for being Chinese, and it seemed it was now coming full circle with my offspring unknowingly pointing out my physical differences. After allowing my initial reaction to dissipate, I referred back to what this year’s and every year’s PoCC has taught me before responding—to step back, to take multiple perspectives, to dig deeper, to ask the right questions, and to assume good intent. While I initially anticipated that the subsequent conversation with my daughter would be one of the toughest ones I have had with her so far, it was heartfelt and moving instead. This was a serendipitous event that would allow me to put into practice all that I had learned at PoCC over the course of eight years in the deepest and most personal way imaginable. It turned out to be an important teaching and learning moment for both of us, and one that I will never forget. PoCC has made me a better parent, teacher, listener, leader, and person, and has pushed me to face “harmony, discord, and the notes in between.”

Joseph Jean-Mary, Summer, After School, and Enrichment Administrator

My first experience at PoCC was eye-opening. I had never been in a place with so many people from different states, ethnic backgrounds, and positions in education. I spoke with both young and seasoned teachers, administrators and coaches, all who shared a common experience, idea, and challenge involving one’s identity, voice, and heart.

As a young male of color who attended both public and independent schools, the conference brought out many emotions that I had not dealt with, or perhaps intentionally blocked from my memories as a child and undergraduate student. In this space, I wasn’t the only “only” that had navigated a predominantly white classroom, social club, or athletic team. It was a space for me to be both vulnerable and empathetic.

This conference propelled me to find my voice, which I had silenced and lost from assimilating, to fit in a box that many people of color unknowingly place themselves in when working with white colleagues. This conference, filled with dedicated individuals working confidently and passionately to make sure their negative experiences aren’t shared with today’s generation of students, is one I plan and hope to attend annually.

Audra McFarland, Director of Admissions

This was my third time attending PoCC, but it felt like an altogether new experience. My first year I was just awed by the scope, the sense of camaraderie, and the breadth of session offerings. When I returned last year, I went on a mission to attend every data-driven and strategy-focused session I could find that would help me to support our future Director of Equity and Inclusion. This year, I stumbled into November with a physical feeling of racial exhaustion. 

Personally and professionally, the microaggressions, systems, and structures I must navigate as a biracial black woman who can blend, pass, and be mistaken for any number of racial and ethnic groups, had done a number on my energy in a way that I had not experienced since attending a pseudo-segregated university in the South. So when I boarded the plane for this year’s conference, I made myself a promise. I was going to attend, choose sessions, and experience the conference purely for my fulfillment. I made myself promise that I would be selfish.  

The opening ceremonies, and the surprise appearance of the Tennessee State University all-black marching band had me clapping and crying at once. These students, their pride, this awakening of music and dance echoed the sounds and visions of my upbringing. I was home. And I felt liberated that I didn't have to hide it or explain it.

As I walked around the convention center, ordering coffee, browsing books with brown characters that I wanted to take home to my little one, and meeting educators from all over, I gave myself license to drop my "work voice" with its carefully practiced tone, cadence, and vocabulary—a voice that you might call "normal," but that I call the product of years of study, coaching, and mimicking to sound "safe" and "educated" to your ears. A voice that hides the melodic intonations of my family, a voice that means I leave a part of myself at the door.

Then, on Thursday afternoon, I finally met Julie Taufaasau in person, a doctor of education who recently defended her dissertation on “Multiracial Female Leaders in Independent Schools.” She introduced me to the other two multiracial women who would serve as my co-panelists for our session. Over lunch we laughed about the times others have assumed we were one thing and warmly welcomed us to an in-group to which we did not racially belong. We also deconstructed and named the impact of the times that well-meaning friends and community members put us in the wrong box and shared views that they might not have fully articulated in our presence if they had known about our brown skinned mamas.

And then our panel sat before an audience of over 120 people, many multiracial and racially ambiguous to the untrained eye, and talked about the power, the responsibility and the inherent risks of being multiracial women on our schools’ leadership teams. My mind worked overtime to stay present and to stay poised, and also to push myself to lose the content filter most independent schools require of employees of color that after a number of years you don't even realize you automatically apply.  So I said the things I knew were my truth, and hoped that my head of school, who sat in the audience to support me, could hear them. Because as Julie's research bore out, these truths are not specific to BDS, but deeply entrenched in our country's racialized past and present.

The outcome of that session I did not anticipate. Women in their 20s and 30s were emailing me and seeking me out for the remaining days of the conference to chat in person and thank me for that truth. Women who expressed their frustration of feeling like they have to speak for a racial group they identify with but cannot fully represent. Women for whom the notion of authentic leadership was an oxymoron. Because can we be perceived as leaders in our school communities if we don't bend to the predominantly white cultural paradigms of our institutions and "play the game?" When you're the "only one" in your school, answering that question can carry high stakes.

The day the conference wrapped up, I learned that my oldest friend was in attendance, so we arranged to meet for lunch. Our moms became friends before we were born because of circumstance: they had each moved to the same New Hampshire town and experienced constantly being called the wrong name. So when they saw each other in the grocery store one day, they immediately knew the name to use to greet the stranger. They were the only two African-American females in the town population of 13,000.

I shared how my PoCC experience this year was shaped by my promise to be selfish, and she reflected on how selfishness is what allowed us to get to where we were in that moment: together in Nashville, two admissions directors attending a National Association of Independent Schools' conference, sharing artisanal pizzas.  

Our moms were selfish when they sought out the best educational opportunities for us, even when that meant removing us from communities that reflected our stories and hues. We were selfish when we entered the independent school world, committed to outperforming our peers to win those college scholarships that would allow us to be among the first in our families to go on to higher education. And we are selfish each day that we enter our respective admissions offices, thinking that our work to recruit and shape more diverse and inclusive communities can better the world for our kids, whether they present as white, black, brown or any of the colors in between.

I returned to work the next Monday in my carefully curated independent school uniform with my "work voice” communicating only bright tones. But I also came with the names, emails and text messages of women who took me from a state of racial exhaustion to a state of racial empowerment; women who are the "only one” in their schools but were quick to reassure me that we existed in some small number. And as I sat at my desk, I made another promise. To not apologize for moments of selfishness because being selfish can allow you to pause, reflect, and transform.

PoCC was transformative for me this year and has recommitted me to the work of helping to make our school more inclusive and, by proxy, more conducive to academic excellence. All of our children deserve that.

Dale McGhee, Business Associate

One definition of reflection is the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound without absorbing it. For that reason, this will not be a reflection. Rather, I want you the reader, to absorb these words!

As you read here, you will notice that the PoCC experience means different things to different people. 

What I want the BDS community to think about is what does it say to you that eleven faculty members of color went to a conference to participate in workshops and networking events, to listen to speakers, and to refill our emotional tanks so that we could come back to BDS and better support and advocate for all of our students. PoCC helped to equip those eleven faculty members to teach and guide students so they can have a solid foundation as they navigate the most formative years of their academic life.

As faculty members who represent underrepresented groups within the  BDS community, we will always be here to do the work, but we need your help. We need you to be uncomfortable. We need you to lean into your discomfort and have that difficult conversation with your child. We need you to have difficult conversations with us, and we need you to have difficult conversations within yourself and be willing to speak up in the broader community. We need you to speak up and speak out when you witness microaggressions, or when demographics other than the majority are being stereotyped, typecast, and oppressed.

This work needs to be done to get BDS closer to becoming a more inclusive community for everyone, and we need to keep the momentum moving in the right direction, so that one year from now and again five years from now, we are not still looking around wondering where to go.   

We know the work may be messy, confusing, and met with hesitation and resistance. Our goal is to make BDS a more equitable community, where all voices are valued and heard. I know this work might not be for everybody and that's alright! If it is not for you, all I ask is that you are not a roadblock. As faculty of color, we already have enough barriers to maneuver and remove so that the next person traveling through will have an easier path. As I hear the phrase “It is going to take a village,” echoed so many times about other issues in the community, equity and inclusion work needs this attention too. It needs to be the work of many, even when conditions are not ideal.

I ask you to imagine diversity and equity work as an airline flight with great pilots and co-pilots. There is a flight plan in place, with no room to deviate. The faculty of color make up the seasoned flight crew that has skillfully navigated turbulence time and time again. We have routinely dealt with low cabin pressure, a minor inconvenience for you perhaps, but for some of us it’s a daily occurrence. If you are so inclined to get on this plane with us, it will be a long flight. It will be turbulent at times, and probably uncomfortable. We won’t have the option to fly above the storm—we will have to fly right through it. It will be when the flight gets rocky that you can look around and see that everyone is rolling their sleeves up to make the trip smoother as we all head to our destination. It will not matter where your seat is located on the plane, as we are all on the same flight and in this work together.

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