By Ke’ea Ramirez, Class of 2021
In November 2018, then-sophomore Ke’ea Ramirez was one of six Rowland Hall students who traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). The SDLC takes place each year in conjunction with the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) People of Color Conference, the flagship of NAIS’ commitment to equity and justice in teaching, learning, and organizational development. As described on their website, the SDLC gives student leaders in grades nine through twelve opportunities to develop cross-cultural communication skills, design effective strategies for social justice practice through dialogue and the arts, and learn the foundations of allyship and networking principles. In addition to large group sessions, students join family groups that allow for smaller unit dialogue and sharing, as well as affinity groups, which gather people with common interests, backgrounds, and experiences. Each participating school is allowed to send up to six students to the SDLC, with conference attendance limited to 1,600 students.
Despite initial hesitation, Ke’ea quickly found herself inspired by the multiracial, multicultural gathering of student leaders and, since then, has sought out opportunities to engage with students from around the country—including by attending another SDLC in November 2019. She shares the story of her first conference experience below.
When my mom told me that she had signed me up for a diversity conference, I was very skeptical and hesitant to go. She told me that it was a good learning opportunity and that I would appreciate the experience. I did not want to do it, and as soon as I looked at the schedule, I decided that the conference would not only be a terrible time, but also that I would have no time for sleep or homework. The schedule was busy and consisted of me waking up at 6 every morning, walking to a conference outside in the freezing cold, getting 45 minutes for lunch, going back to the conference, and then returning to the hotel at 10 pm. Even though it was only a few days, I did not want to go.
On November 28, I got on the plane to Nashville with five other students from Rowland Hall. The next morning, when I got to the conference, we sat in a room with hundreds of other students from all over America. I felt very overwhelmed; I was in a different state on the complete other side of the country, surrounded by so many other kids and adults. I was amazed by how many students actually went to the conference, and, surprisingly, found myself inspired by the speakers. At that moment I remember thinking, “Maybe the conference won’t be as bad as I thought.” After the opening ceremony, my mindset changed a little bit, going from, “This is going to be the worst thing ever,” to, “Maybe I can tolerate this for a few days.”
I felt like I had known these other students my entire life. I made best friends in less than an hour and connected with so many people.
Next, we shuffled into our smaller family groups of around 50 students. If you know me, you know that I am not very outgoing and I tend to be shy. In addition, I was only a sophomore; I thought that I would be trampled by all the other junior and senior students. However, after the first activity (a classic ice-breaker game), I felt like I had known these other students my entire life. I made best friends in less than an hour and connected with so many people from around the country. I felt as though I had actually made a new family, despite my initial reluctance. My thoughts then changed again, from, “Maybe I can tolerate this for a few days,” to, “I am so happy that my mom forced me to go.”
We spent nearly eight hours in family groups, and then we moved on to affinity groups. I ended up going to the Asian/Pacific Islander affinity group; this group was at least three times as big as my family group. A lot of the students that went to the conference with me from Rowland Hall also attended this affinity group, and some of my new friends from my family group were present. Initially, I thought that affinity groups were where people got together and talked about problems that we could all relate to. However, there was a lot more than I had expected. While we did talk about serious topics, we also had a lot of fun, and, similar to the family group, I connected with people and, again, made best friends fast.
This conference was so important to me because all students were represented, and it is always important to hear the issues of others and to become aware of what is happening around the country.
The first thing we did the next day was to separate into smaller groups and have a singing competition. While it sounds embarrassing and silly, it was actually so much fun, and it allowed us to all come together, gain courage, and laugh. I realized that my preconceived notion of the conference was wrong. What I expected was not what was reality. It was at that moment when my mindset, once again, changed from, “I am so happy that my mom forced me to go,” to, “I never, ever want to leave this conference.”
After we left Nashville and the SDLC behind, I reflected on my experience and realized how much I loved the conference and how glad I was that I went. My favorite session was either family groups or affinity groups because of how many amazing people I met, all the fun activities we did, and how much we ended up feeling like a true family. I made lifelong friends that I am still close to and talk to all the time; I also became even closer to the Rowland Hall students who went to the conference. This conference was so important to me as well because all students were represented, and it is always important to hear the issues of others and to become aware of what is happening around the country.
Even though I wasn’t initially excited to attend, the SDLC turned out to be one of my best experiences in high school—and I immediately signed up for two more conferences when I returned: the 2019 Northwest Association of Independent Schools’ Student Diversity Leadership Retreat in Portland, Oregon, and the 2019 SDLC in Seattle, Washington. I will also be returning to Seattle this March in a leadership role: I’m going to help run affinity spaces and mentor middle school students at the 2020 Student Diversity Leadership Retreat. I am excited to be working with younger students and I hope that they will be just as inspired and motivated as I was.
Top photo, from left: Rowland Hall students Micha Nenbee, Ke'ea Ramirez, and Katy Dark took a break from the 2019 SLDC to explore Seattle's famous Pike Place Market. (Photos courtesy Ke'ea Ramirez)