For the last 31 years, the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS) has sponsored the People of Color Conference (PoCC) in its commitment to developing organizations that understand the importance of equity and justice in teaching and learning. The annual conference is the “flagship” of NAIS and its increasing popularity may well be due to the organization’s mobilizing mission to “provide a safe space for leadership, professional development and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools.” In keeping with these values, Park Tudor, a long-standing member of NAIS, supported the attendance of nine faculty members who collectively represented a wide range of influence within our school community.
The 2018 People of Color Conference generated unprecedented interest from faculty wanting to attend, and we sent our largest adult delegation ever to participate in what has now become a coveted professional development opportunity. Attendees extended across race, gender and divisions, as well as professional levels. This year’s location - Nashville, Tennessee - was also appealing. In addition, this year’s theme - Equitable Schools and Inclusive Communities: Harmony, Discord, & the Notes in Between - resonated well with the musicality and momentum of the times. The positive response to PoCC from faculty is indicative of our school’s commitment toward the advancement of equity and inclusion.
The Park Tudor attendance roster included a diverse ensemble of educational practitioners: Shants Hart, Associate Head of School; Reginald Shelt, Assistant Director of the Upper School; Mary McGonagle, Lower School Director; Emily Butler, Lower School Teaching Assistant; Ken Wempe, Middle School Director, Kali Flores, Director of Student Learning Services; Brent Kaneft, Director of Curriculum & Instruction; Joseph Fumusa, Associate Director of College Counseling; and Allyson Horton, Director of Equity & Inclusion and US English Teacher. Our spirited group consisted of five first-timers and four faculty who had previously attended the conference at least once. Regardless of any prior experience with PoCC, we were all embarking upon a new adventure together.
The four-day stay in Nashville offered great opportunities to build community with one another outside the walls of our shared institutional spaces. The group travel experience alone allowed for the unique opportunity to connect with colleagues more meaningfully. An added value of attending this particular conference lies in these rare occasions to engage with fellow practitioners as well as build relationships across different institutions.
These sentiments are best captured in personal reflections shared by Kali Flores: “PoCC was driven with purpose and rich with fellowship. It provided a safe haven that was perfect for fostering important dialogue and growing deep connections geared toward making schools more equitable and growing inclusive communities.” Flores’ comments also speak to the wealth of knowledge one can acquire while attending the annual event.
Each day at PoCC was filled with a plethora of activities that sustained the interests of over 6,400 attendees. The conference included a host of networking opportunities with more than 125 workshops, affinity groups, and powerful keynote speakers, from journalist and author Lisa Ling to American activist Marian Wright Edelman. By far the most dynamic speaker in the program was Marc Lamont Hill, former CNN contributor who currently teaches at Temple University. Hill's closing remarks left us with a piercing word to the wise: “Institutions that love all of their children, show all of their children through their words and actions.” Hill's message clearly drove home the idea that our schools must work to serve all of our students.
In addition to being inspired by a luminous lineup of presenters, many of us found ourselves immersed in tools, resources and activities that pertained to various dimensions of diversity from gender & race to physical and mental ability. Perhaps one of the most challenging components of PoCC proved to be the affinity groups in which we were encouraged to examine our own differences, implicit biases and personal experiences. As the age old saying goes - no pain, no gain. Add to this - no personal growth and no opportunity for pedagogical improvement. These and other workshops affirmed the need for self-reflection and educational responsibility, particularly as it pertains to educators looking at students through the lens of whole-child education. In support of this idea, Brent Kaneft realizes that "in the 21st century, it is essential to have a human-centered learning experience, which means honoring the students in the classroom by ‘seeing’ them.” Conferences like PoCC remind us that it is not merely enough to see our numbers continue to grow; we, as an institution must continue to grow as well.
One distinguishing value of this year's PoCC is that the conference placed emphasis on whole-child education at all levels of development: social, emotional and academic. So, our group felt honored to have Lower School teaching assistant, Emily Butler, in our company. Butler found the experience both enlightening and useful in her daily work with our youngest learners. In fact, when asked about her takeaway from the trip she offered an inspiring quote pocketed from one of the general sessions: "True growth happens outside of your comfort zone." For Butler, this statement essentially means that “as a whole we should have a willingness to change and to want to be an agent of change in our school.” Unquestionably, the reward of Park Tudor's divisional investment in PoCC is that this select configuration of faculty returned evermore committed to the work of equity & inclusion.
While in Nashville, we managed to find a memorable balance between serious work and serious play. For instance, Shants Hart and Joe Fumusa hosted an alumni reception for our Vanderbilt students on the second day of our trip, which set a wonderful tone for the remaining group activities to follow. As a group we enjoyed our share of off-site explorations and eateries like the historic Woolworth on 5th. Everywhere we travelled, a backdrop of live music permeated the scene. With a city as musically rich as Nashville, it came as no surprise that this year’s PoCC performances would be steeped in African American culture, ranging from live marching bands to spoken word slams to Fisk Jubilee singers. Part of the excitement involved was simply being able to witness so many educators gathered in one place, for one purpose - to affirm equity & inclusion matter.
Essentially, nine faculty members selected to attend the 2018 conference had the awesome experience of participating in the ongoing conversation around 21st century education as it pertains to the ever-changing landscape of private schools across the nation. Joe Fumusa attended the conference as a returnee this year. Not only has each experience left him with new strategies, but also a lasting impression. Fumusa, a college counselor who also teaches a “Social History and Ethics Seminar” in the Upper School is a strong advocate for PoCC. He considers it “a terrific way to empower our students to learn how to advocate for themselves and others around them – especially those who may not look like them.” Echoing Hart’s feature sentiments, Fumusa firmly believes “the priority of justice must be at the core of all of our efforts.” This is an undeniable fact of diversity.
Without question, we returned with greater insight, momentum and clarity of vision around the advancement of equity & inclusion. Mary McGonagle, Lower School Director, wasted no time to construct a bullet point list of next steps for her department moving forward. Ken Wempe, Middle School Director, remained in deep thought regarding his vision for Middle School. As the Director of Equity & Inclusion, I returned further inspired by my colleagues whose participation demonstrates the power of this work when it is at the center of all of our educational impulses.
This year, NAIS experienced its “largest PoCC and SDLC” in history. NAIS welcomed over 6,400 attendees for PoCC while its youth-based counterpart, the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SLDC) stretched beyond its annual capacity (1,600) to accommodate 1,700 aspiring young leaders after a national Microsoft outage disrupted the registration process resulting in the unfortunate wait-listing of hundreds of schools, including Park Tudor. A week later, NAIS was able to relaunch its system, but unfortunately, within four hours of registration, the organization was forced to report an unprecedented occurrence: the youth conference had reached full capacity.
Although our school was not able to secure placement this year, we deeply appreciated receiving a personal email from NAIS Vice President Caroline Blackwell acknowledging the unfortunate circumstances. Consequently, this incident impacted Park Tudor’s ability to send a delegation of both students and adults to participate in NAIS’s complementary conferences. Nonetheless, we would like to officially announce the six candidates who were enthusiastically selected to attend: Lee Fisher, Zhandi Kabunga, Imaan Mirza, Dia Moore-Freeman, Priyanka Ranga and Julia Waddles. We are currently exploring alternative student leadership development options for these particular students.
Despite the circumstances surrounding SDLC registration, we were fortunate to register nine faculty members. We felt it was important to continue to send educators to receive the information, skills and experience necessary to improve and enhance the learning environment for the benefit of our students and adults. We are in a more advantageous position to continue our endeavors as a result of attending PoCC this year. It was the right ensemble for this trip. And the right time. And it was an absolute honor to experience this year’s conference with such a diverse and dynamic group of colleagues.