Students from four San Diego schools organize first Regional Student Diversity Summit
Students from four local schools came together virtually during the pandemic to organize the first Regional Student Diversity Summit to focus on “respectful dialogue, the relationship between current and systemic issues, and the potential youth have to catalyze change within their communities and beyond”
The first Regional Student Diversity Summit is a virtual, two-day conference at the end of February, organized by students from The Bishop’s School, Francis Parker, La Jolla Country Day and Pacific Ridge schools. Last year, the idea came up at The Bishop’s School, but after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person gathering, the directors of diversity at each school put together an online student meeting to talk about collaboration on the conference.
“At the beginning of our planning process, we laid down the groundwork: Who is this meant for? What issues are we focused on? What do we want students to take away from this? Why does what we do matter?” the conference organizers said in a collective statement. “Obviously, we had disagreements, but through those conflicts, we … became more comfortable with each other and began to openly share our ideas.”
They spent about 10 months in weekly meetings securing speakers (including Bettina Love, the award-winning author, former Nasir Jones Hiphop fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and professor at the University of Georgia), workshop facilitators, building the website, coordinating scheduling and other details, including getting (author) Bettina Love as their keynote speaker. The conference theme is “(Un)Covering You: Privilege and Vulnerability” and is focused on “respectful dialogue, the relationship between current and systemic issues, and the potential youth have to catalyze change within their communities and beyond,” according to their website. This summit takes place from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 27 and 28, through The Bishop’s School’s Zoom platform.
The 16 students who’ve worked together on this conference are Marwa Al-Naser, Emma Araya, Maia Carlson, Lila Chitayat, Alexcia Doak, Jaiv Doshi, Elias Herrera, Sean Kim, Zoë McNeil, Connor Qiu, Simrin Ramchandani, Nicholas Simpson, Scott Vu, Carson Walker, Isabella Walther-Meade and Sophie White. They took some time to talk about why this kind of event is important to them and how they believe their generation can make progress in dismantling systems of oppression. (This email interview has been edited for length and clarity. )
Q: Tell us about the theme you decided on, “(Un)Covering You: Privilege and Vulnerability.” What led you to select this theme, in particular? What do you hope the other participants get from this?
A: The first part of the theme “(Un)Covering You” has two meanings: You are “uncovering” the stories of others, of yourself, and the unconscious biases hidden within you or your community. It is a process of transformation, of coming out of something. It’s about the process of searching and unearthing, whether it be the good or bad you find. The second meaning is an homage to Kenji Yoshino’s book “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights,” where he defines “covering” as a “more complex form of assimilation than conversion or passing,” which affects the four axes of appearance, affiliation, activism and association. Basically, to “cover” is to subdue your identity to cater to the norms of the dominant culture. We hope that this conference will open up ways for students to resist the assimilation of dominant society and to be prouder and more vocal of their own identities and activism. The second part of the theme, “Privilege and Vulnerability,” is to amplify the conversation we wish to foster at our conference, where people will understand complex intersections of their privilege and be more vulnerable with sharing and receiving stories.
Q: Diversity, equity and inclusion have been talked about a lot, particularly over the past 10 to 15 years, and especially since last summer. With the social justice discussions happening within social media spaces, books, television, news outlets and more, why was it important to you to organize a regional summit on the topic?
A: When we first met to plan our conference, we would have never foreseen the scale of events during the summer of 2020. However, like Black Lives Matter, police brutality and so many of the issues that were brought to global attention this summer, the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have always been prevalent for those affected, even before they entered the mainstream of political discussion. DEI does not have a set agenda; rather, we believe that it is a mindset. It is a mindset that grapples with identity, privilege, bias, community, and so much more, and it is something that can be adopted by anyone at any time. We believe in the importance of thinking critically, equitably and justly, so we wanted to organize a regional summit regarding the topics of DEI. Though we will have tough conversations and biases to unravel, students will be able to do it in a comfortable environment that is specifically made for them.
It was also important for us to create regional summit as a kind of legacy for the students that will follow us. That’s why we put so much emphasis on this year being the first of many — too often, students dedicated to DEI are deprived of mentorship or the basic organizational structure necessary to succeed when you’re trying to change campus culture. This is especially true of high school environments; students often have to start from scratch after older students graduate, which makes for generations of baby steps. This summit is infrastructure. DEI in schools is often treated as abstract or immeasurable, and many students who dedicated their high school years to inclusion are left wondering about the extent of their impact. Our summit allows for a continuation of leadership by bringing younger students into the fold, providing them with mentors, and an existing framework to accomplish something.
Q: I noticed on your website that you have rules, agreements and practices for respectful dialogue, which include statements like agreeing to “experience awkwardness,” “allow others to learn what you may already know” or the respectful dialogue practices like “I understand that nobody is infallible and I respect our ability to grow, change our minds, and learn, together.” Why was it important to you to create these rules and agreements? What kind of difference do you hope this will make for the summit and the experience of the participants?
A: We wanted to create the rules and agreements because we wish to create a space that can have those tough conversations and share our ideas, but also we want to remind our participants that it’s not just about giving your ideas and opinions to other people, but there’s also the act of receiving others’ ideas and opinions. We want there to be introspection through conflict and agreement, and truly, we want this conference to be a safe space, but also a space where debate is encouraged — of course, in a respectful, open-minded way.
Q: I’ve often heard adults my age, and older, say that they aren’t very concerned with addressing social justice issues like racism, sexism or ableism because they believe that those practices will eventually “die out” on their own and be replaced by the more open and inclusive perspectives and actions of younger generations. To me, it tends to sound like my peers believe that this shift will just happen automatically, without any deliberate work being done. The existence of this summit seems to suggest otherwise, but what do you make of that point of view? That there isn’t much need to actively and deliberately work toward dismantling those systems because younger generations won’t be interested in upholding them? Has that been your experience with your peers?
A: At the bottom of our home page, we have a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” We chose out that quote because it forces us to think about the positive and negative space around social justice. We ask ourselves, “What are we doing to further diversity, equity, and inclusion in our communities,” but we also should ask, “What are we not doing to further diversity, equity and inclusion? How are our actions feeding into a cycle of institutionalized inequality?” We consider both the active and passive proponents to addressing social justice, and this point of view of just looking at the passive aspects of social justice (hoping that it’ll “die out” or “just happen automatically”), does not complete the full picture of social justice. Simply critiquing or ignoring the beliefs of the older generation won’t do us any good; rather, we should take their optimism and faith in our generation, and actually make it happen.
And to directly answer the question, we’re going to bring up another Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “The time is always right to do what is right.” He says that time itself is neutral, it’s just how you wield it, for better or for worse. We believe that, even when we think that the younger generation won’t be interested in upholding systems of oppression, it is way easier said than done. Institutionalized systems of oppression are burdens we cannot simply let go and ignore, but they are so deeply ingrained in our language, performance, the way we dress, the way we categorize race, gender, and sexuality, that simply thinking that they will be wholly abandoned in a generation is an aspiration that will take more than just dreaming. Our experiences with peers, and even with ourselves, reveal that there are systems we uphold, and that we still have so much more work to do in order to decenter and relearn a true world of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
— Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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