Humbling, painful, amazing, challenging, rejuvenating, overwhelming—these are just some of the adjectives Rowland Hall educators used to describe the experience of attending the People of Color Conference (PoCC) last fall. While faculty and staff at independent schools regularly attend conferences to learn about trends in education or to network with their peers, those who sign up for the PoCC have at least one additional objective. According to Kate Taylor, Upper School English teacher and co-chair of the school's Inclusion and Equity Committee, "People go to this conference to be vulnerable."
Dr. Taylor was one of six attendees from Rowland Hall who traveled to Anaheim, California, at the end of November for the 30th annual PoCC. At the largest conference organized by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), 6,000 administrators, staff, faculty, and students from predominantly independent schools gathered for three days of stimulating workshops and speakers, and deeply personal inquiry into issues regarding race, identity, and privilege. Joining Dr. Taylor at the conference were her committee co-chair and Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus; Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education; Lisa Miranda, assistant director of admission for the Lincoln Street Campus; Robin Hori, Upper School physics teacher; and Anna Ernst, Lower School physical education teacher.
For the Rowland Hall cohort, from first-time attendees like Ms. Miranda to five-time attendee Mr. de Jesus, the conference was a chance to delve deeper into the critical work the Inclusion and Equity Committee—on which they all serve—is undertaking at our school. Along with the institutional lens each educator brought to the conference, they had opportunities to explore and affirm their racial identities through affinity groups. Each day, attendees broke off into sessions with others of their race or ethnicity and connected over shared experiences in closed-door conversations.
"So many people shared so many painful stories," said Ms. Miranda, who attended the affinity group for people who are black or of African heritage. While specific details remained confidential, they discussed everything from bullying in schools to a lack of faculty representation for people of color. Mr. Hori reported that the majority of conversations in the Asian groups he attended centered on how to best support students of color. Although Ms. Ernst initially expressed some skepticism regarding how she would relate to other Latinx educators in this context, she ultimately saw the power of affinity groups.
"We are all educators, whatever roles we have in schools, and we all come from different backgrounds, but we have this connection," she said. She also believes establishing affinity groups for Rowland Hall students and families could be beneficial to our community—which is an explicit goal of the committee this year.
Affinity groups are not just for people of color, either—for Dr. Taylor, the session for white people, or those of European heritage, was of great value. "White people were talking about how to be an ally or an advocate, and their successes or frustrations with this work," she said. "It was a very constructive mindset."
The idea of inclusion and equity work as a mindset—rather than something to be done—is a point of emphasis for conference attendees. Mr. de Jesus framed it as a growth opportunity for the school. "As an organization, we can broaden our understanding of what the work looks like," he explained. "It's not a one-off chapel or some other addition to the schedule. It's a mindset to be fostered, both individually and collectively."
Clockwise from upper left: Lisa Miranda, Ryan Hoglund, Robin Hori, Jij de Jesus, Kate Taylor, Anna Ernst
All six educators returned to Rowland Hall with renewed passion for their work, along with difficult questions regarding how to implement change. While there are plans to build and support affinity groups, and to increase the positive representation of people of color across our curriculum, there are significant roadblocks as well. Ms. Miranda identified inequalities in the admission process—which exist at many schools, not just Rowland Hall—that benefit those who are wealthy or have generational knowledge of independent school education. And along with the limited time and funding that can hamper any school initiative, work surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion doesn't always get buy-in from everyone in a school community, in part because it requires the kind of vulnerability that PoCC encourages.
According to Mr. Hori, some people may be afraid of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. Nevertheless, he remains vocal about the need to have difficult conversations on a regular basis. "We need to be willing to talk about concerns as well as progress, and not feel like if I have something bad to say, there will be consequences," he said. He also identified improved student support—particularly for students of color and females—as a priority.
"I appreciate that we want to open up the community," Mr. Hori said in a nod to the school's goal for an increasingly diverse student body and faculty, "but we have to be careful how we do this, to make sure there is support for the kids." He reflected at length on the exhausting process of assimilation at independent schools, something he engaged in for years out of what he regarded as professional demands. "We have all of these students from different backgrounds, and we just expect them to produce and behave in this white-dominant culture," he said, adding that he's contemplating different ways to reach out to students of color about their experience at Rowland Hall.
Whether people have been afraid, uncomfortable, unaware, or unwilling, Ms. Miranda doesn't see inaction as an option for the school. "We are entrusted with children at the most crucial times of their lives. We have them more than their parents do, sometimes," she said. "Are we going to be our best selves and our best educators? And in order to do that, what do we embrace?" She described being part of the Rowland Hall community as a great privilege, and with that privilege comes the responsibility of doing this critical work.
"We expect our kids to be leaders, so we can't talk to them about growth mindset if we don't live it," she added.
The possibility to lead among independent schools on issues of equity and inclusion is something that excites Mr. Hoglund. It was his third time attending PoCC, and part of the reason he keeps returning is that it confirms the importance of this work and that Rowland Hall is on the right track. "This conference is both a self-care moment and an investment in our school's future," he said, adding "Everyone benefits from greater diversity." He found the presentation by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author and journalist who was one of the conference's general-session speakers, particularly moving. "He reiterated that this work is everyone's work, and we need each other to create inclusive spaces," Mr. Hoglund reflected.
Rowland Hall wanted to send students to PoCC in 2017, but due to the exceptional demand for the conference, they did not make it off the waitlist. Mr. Hoglund and the other attendees expressed hope that some of our students will attend this year and encouraged any interested adults—teachers, staff, or board members, of any race or ethnicity—to join as well. "We need to have more people go," Ms. Ernst said, "to truly see what diversity can add to your school, and to learn how to be allies."
As it did for each member of last year's cohort, the conference will provide future attendees with a unique emotional experience, based on several factors: racial identity, where they are on their identity-development journeys, and their roles within the Rowland Hall community. For Mr. de Jesus, this year was particularly powerful, as it was his first time attending since becoming a principal. "This conference was where I first received mentorship, support, and advocacy on my own leadership journey," he said. "And this time I was in the role of handing out my business card to younger people who are interested in becoming leaders."
What sets PoCC apart from any other professional-development experience? It's the opportunity to be vulnerable, as Dr. Taylor identified, and to use the exploration of one's racial and ethnic identity as a springboard for institutional change. Mr. de Jesus summed it up nicely: "PoCC gives me permission to include who I am—my identity, beyond being an educator—into the work I do as an educator. There's no separation between professional and personal. It's all personal."