By Clara Getty ’21 News Reporter
Last week, Mercersburg Academy sent six students and four faculty members to the National Association of Independent School’s annual People of Color Conference in Seattle, Washington. Held within the event was the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, where Alex Cho ‘22, Isonah Dlodlo ’22, Carmen Martinez ‘20, Tanaka Mukudzavu ’20, Birdy McDonnell ‘20, and Matthew Tavarez ’22 took part.
Mukudzavu says, “The conference included multiple workshops with activities centered around the eight main cultural identities (Race and Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation, Ability, Family Structure, Socioeconomic Status, Religion, Gender, Age) and how these identifiers intersect to create our identity.” Students were put in affinity groups comprised of students of similar background, where they had the opportunity to discuss that shared identity along with its history, and celebrate their culture.
Dlodlo says, “I was empowered, I was in a space where the majority of people were minorities. And we worked to empower one another in that safe space.” Mukudzavu explains, “I realized how complex my identity truly is in regard to how some aspects of my identity can provide certain benefits in my life, while others can combine to create disadvantages. They also made me feel quite vulnerable because I was sharing deep personal aspects of my life.”
The event created a place for students to be vulnerable without the fear of being judged. It was a supportive space. Although the conference originally started as a resource for educators of color, as schools gave more attention to issues of equity and inclusion, white allies began to attend. The number of white teachers in attendance threatens to undermine the original purpose of the conference, an issue that hangs like a heavy question mark over the future direction of the event.
Although Mercersburg this is the second year that Mercersburg has sent students to the conference, their presence this year is especially important considering the school’s overall theme of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. DEI is not unique to Mercersburg’s curriculum; in fact, many independent schools have recognized the topic’s importance to their determination to serve all of their students. Mercersburg’s participation will help shape the direction of programmatic revision and the nature of school culture. For their part, the student participants are advocating for change.
For many of the attendees, the present challenge lies in coming back to campus and commencing life as normal. Upon their return to campus history teacher and leader of Mercersburg diversity initiative Selas Douglas spoke to the students, recognizing that they likely would now be carrying new perspectives, causing them to see the school community differently. For some, that might include feelings of frustration or an eagerness even impatience to create change.
Mukudzavu comments, “I know I will feel different coming back to campus and that it may take a while to get my emotions in order, but I will use the momentum I gained from the conference to start working on change.” Mukudzavu realizes how much she has missed in the past by allowing her shyness to prevent her from speaking up. Now, the conference has given her the courage to overcome this inclination. In fact, she has already begun to speak to administrators about implementing several changes in line with the year’s theme: diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dlodlo commented, “It’s a shame that returning back to school was a dreadful feeling. It shows that the school still has much work to do, and due to my experience I can help put that in motion.”
Dlodlo exclaims, “You can’t describe the conference, because it was not a thing but a feeling, a feeling of love that is impossible to explain unless you are there.” She encourages any interested student to apply to attend the conference next year.