Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of joining nine members of Belmont Day School’s community in attending the People of Color Conference (PoCC) in Anaheim, CA. The conference, which is the most well attended annual conference of any that are offered by the National Association of Independent Schools, welcomed nearly 6,000 adult participants and another 1,600 students for the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). Not including myself, all of Belmont Day’s participants are people of color. In all, every facet of the school was represented: admissions, business and finance, the lower and middle school divisions, specialist teachers, health and wellness, governance, and leadership. Second grade teacher Tina Fox was a leader and presenter at the conferencea true and well-earned honor. Time and time again, other schoolseven those that sent more folks than BDS couldexpressed how impressed they were at Belmont Day’s commitment to diversity and marvelled at the breadth of representation our community had put forth.
When we returned, I asked the participants to reflect on their experience and share what the conference meant to them. What follows is a very real and authentic articulation of each of their lived experiences and the ways that PoCC 2017 helped to reenergize, challenge, and inspire each of them (and me).
Here, in our words, is what PoCC 2017 meant to us.
Dale McGhee, Business Associate
PoCC is the movie that I have been waiting to see! It is the movie in which the actors look like me, not just a few actors or one co-star but EVERYONE! This movie is written, directed, shot, edited, and scored by people who look like me! This movie breaks the mold of stereotypes that most movies continue to set forth. PoCC is affirmation of the elusive race that I have been running all my life. It is the comforting realization that I am not the only one running this race. It is an appreciation and gratitude for the many who have run the race before me. It is the understanding that because of these prior runners and their efforts, sacrifices, and vision, I have the ability to get closer to the finish line, even when that line gets moved, every time, no matter how fast I run. By attending PoCC and returning refueled and rehydrated, it is my hope that my continued efforts and voice can make the race easier for the next generation of runners.
Audra McFarland, Director of Admissions
I use to joke around that there are two kinds of people: those who need to engage with stories to believe a reality, and those who need to see numbers to believe a reality. Right out of college I was firmly in the “stories” camp; I studied cultural anthropology looking specifically at racial identity formation and individual stories were the core of how I actualized abstract theories of race. I, of course, met and fell for a man who saw the world only in numbers, and we initially struggled to communicate our realities across this divide. Through our relationship I realized the importance of grounding impactful stories in contextual data to inspire empathy and action.
PoCC for me is a place where I get to bridge the stories and data divide. That merging is what allows us to build a shared understanding of the experience of our students of color, and to recognize the urgency of endowing all students with cultural competency skills so that we graduate leaders into the world beyond BDS. At PoCC I get to engage with data, and think through how to tell the stories of our diverse families through surveys, diversity dashboards, and benchmarks. I also get to engage with the stories of the 6,000 educators and administrators of color from across the country and learn from their successes, missteps, and future plans. PoCC informs how I think about recruitment, assessment, and the integration of new students into the BDS community, and challenges me personally to consider how as a biracial black woman on our faculty I can support our ongoing diversity efforts on the individual and institutional levels.
Jackie Robinson, Parent and Trustee
When I arrived back from this year’s PoCC conference, my daughter asked me how it was. I told her it was amazing because I saw 1,600 high school students from independent schools across the country come together to show adults that tomorrow’s future is brighter than we think. As a parent, seeing students willing to engage in difficult conversations that many adults work hard to avoid, is really encouraging.The fact that PoCC offers the space for students to have those conversations lets me know that BDS is investing in something that is beneficial to our community as a whole, which is invaluable.
Hema Ramachandran, Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Financial Aid
Where I was born and raised, you identified as Chinese, Indian, Malay or Westerner; not Asian or South Asian, or Southeast Asian; not yellow, brown, or white. By necessity, I fell in line with the social construct of race as defined in the United States because it didn’t take me very long to realize my skin color mattered, and my children’s would too, especially post 9/11. The intentionality of the equity and inclusion work cultivated and advanced by PoCC has been enlightening, a catalyst, challenging all adults in school communities to create spaces for candid student, faculty, and staff discussions on identity, prejudice, racism, and privilege. Through my admissions lens, several PoCC workshops provided an invaluable framework upon which to evaluate the minority experience of students of color in independent schools, a first step to establishing a school culture and curriculum that reflects, promotes, and supports the hybridity of our communities. We all have work to do!
Carl Geneus, PE Teacher and Trustee
What does PoCC mean?
It means learning from workshops and speakers, engaging in thoughtful conversations, and embracing the challenges with educators from across the country.
What does PoCC mean?
It means meeting professionals in education who share the same race, culture, and experiences.
What does PoCC mean?
It means .continuing to improve and enhance the meaningful work of equity, inclusion, and diversity in school communities.
What does PoCC mean?
A fellow conference attendee put it best, “PoCC is the most exhausting work I look forward to each year.”
William Yepes, Middle School Spanish Teacher, Eighth Grade Coordinator
After teaching for 20 years, BDS was the first school in my life that allowed me to be my true self. After growing up disguising or denying many pieces of my identity it was truly an amazing experience to march with students, families, and faculty at the Boston Pride Parade last summer. Equally important was the opportunity to thank Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a room full of BDS eighth graders for her opinion on the case that gave equal protection under the law and federal benefits to same-sex couples. After that ruling, I was able to recover my legal status as a resident of this nation and eventually it allowed me to become a citizen.
I share my story with my students because I want them to know that history and politics is not just in the textbooks, it is around us every day. I let them know that one day they will be in places of power-making decision. The decisions they make will have an impact in the lives of many people who might never be able to participate in the allocation of resources, but for whom many times resources are denied. PoCC has been a mirror into other lives that share experiences like mine and a window into other experiences that I am not aware or will never have to go through. It has also given me the understanding that my actions in the classroom can spark a change in the system. I can also be a mirror for some of my students and a window for many more. That’s why it is so important for me to be part of PoCC.?
Tina Fox, Second Grade Teacher
POCC is a lot of hard and emotional work where I am immediately immersed in authentic conversations with educators whose collective energy, wisdom, and experiences carry me through the conference in their knowing and loving arms. Holding me through my tears, exhaustion, and doubt. Ultimately lifting me up and reminding me that I am worth it, I am seen, I am heard, and I am valued. For me POCC was particularly meaningful this year because I had the opportunity to present a workshop with a group of colleagues who hold a special place in my heart. A group that continues to help me to reflect, heal, and grow, my transracial adoptee affinity group. My presentation was both a professional goal as well as a personal one, speaking at the national level about something that is part of my story, my identity, my lived truth as a transracial adoptee. This experience paired with the opportunity to attend a variety of workshops and speakers who filled my well with ideas, best practices, and strategies to bring back to BDS made PoCC 2017 one of my best.
Betty Chu Pryor, Kindergarten Teacher
This was my seventh time attending the People of Color Conference, and I discover a renewed sense of self as a person and educator each time I have the good fortune to attend. Over the years, I have approached the conference with a slightly different lens or perspective depending on where I am in my career or personal life. Having previously taught in public schools, for instance, the conference grounded me and helped me consider and explore unique issues of equity and diversity inherent in independent schools during my inaugural year as a teacher in an independent school. After the birth of my first child, my participation in an affinity group at the conference was the first time I had discussed the anticipated struggles of raising a biracial child with a group of peers who could empathize and speak similarly from the “I” perspective.
Several people have wondered why I have the urge to return after having experienced the conference so many times. Being at this conference is like returning homereturning to a safe place where you feel a genuine sense of belonging and deep connections with people you may only see once a year, but accept you back without judgment or hesitation. PoCC offers an environment where I am guaranteed to have a cohort of adults who understand what it means to be the only Asian American educator at one’s institution or worse yet what it is like to feel invisible at times or revered as the model minority. PoCC provides a setting to converse with peers who can commiserate with the seemingly innocent question of “No, where are you really from?” that has been posed to me so many times in my life that I have become immune to the shocked reactions of my audience when I insist I am a native New Yorker. PoCC is where I can find colleagues who I may have never met before, but who have also felt the sting of hurt when they have felt the constant need to prove oneself in their jobs despite accomplishments and qualifications that mirror those of their white counterparts. PoCC is where I do not need to suppress or shed any aspect of my identity at the door because it is a conference that celebrates differences and individuality.
Having the opportunity to attend PoCC whenever it is possible is a privilege that I do not take lightly. Considering all of the chaotic events that have been happening in our country recently, it is important now, more than ever, that I take my responsibility as a parent and educator seriously and to instill the tenets of equity, inclusion, and respect that this conference promotes both in my children at home as well as the ones at BDS. I am so grateful that Belmont Day School continues to value the importance of this conference for faculty of color and our allies, and unconditionally supports us in our quest to “lead, learn, rededicate, and deliver” in the realms of diversity, equity, and social justice.
Leesa Mercedes, School Psychologist
Last year, my first PoCC experience, was one of unspoken acknowledgment, shared intention, courageous questioning. and evolving narratives. In a space brimming with positive energy and determination, the feeling of being depleted was replenished with a sense of purpose that would make me a better educator and a more engaged member of the BDS community. PoCC roused an awareness in me, emphasizing the importance of becoming informed and to inform others, and to aim to understand and to be understood with a focus on who we are and less on what we are. It is work that is just as important with faculty and students in the majority at BDS, as it is with students from underrepresented or underserved groups.
As a second-year attendee, PoCC meant the reemergence of an unparalleled sense of belonging. We were invited to lean into discomfort, suspend judgment of ourselves and others, and to become empowered to effect positive change in our school communities. PoCC challenges participants to explore new ideas and to reconsider our goals and our approach. The opportunity to experience PoCC with other members of the BDS community allows us to strengthen our vision, our mission, and our efforts to build and sustain an inclusive community. PoCC also reminds us to inspire courage and leadership in all of our students and in one another to become “Voices of Equity and Justice Now and in Every Generation: Lead, Learn, Rededicate, and Deliver”.
Brendan Largay, Head of School
I had no intention of attending PoCC this year, or any other, for that matter. As a conference designed for folks of color, it was clear to me that the finite dollars of the school’s professional development budget should be dedicated to them to attend. Then, as the early bird registration deadline came around, a colleague who had registered asked if I planned to attend as well. I told him, no, that spots were for faculty and staff members of color. He explained, “Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear: you have to go. It is imperative.” I took him at his word, and was honored at the request. As I reflect on my experience at PoCC, I understand the imperative. I was one of fewer than 100 heads of school at the conference (remember, close to 6,000 were in attendance). Time and time and time again, folks from other schools explained to me how they wished their head was there, stressing that it would signal deep support to their school communities. I was asked to attend because it matters deeply to the folks of color in our community to know that their school is behind them, recognizes them for the talent and ability they bring to BDS everyday, and makes them visible in a world that can often leave them feeling something less than visible. It matters, as we proudly welcome students and families of color onto our campus everyday, that those folks understand that we are on this journey together and here to support one another along the way. It matters because diversity and excellence are not mutually exclusive entities, but mutually reliant ones. I had no intention of going to PoCC this year, but I am deeply grateful that I was invited to join the faculty and staff who attended, and proud of the work they are doing on behalf of our students every day.
Have a great weekend everyone.