By Brynn Weisholtz ’20

From November 28th to December 1st, Ethan Malzberg (VI), Nia Phillips (VI), and Noelle Mullins (V) and 19 faculty members attended the annual People of Color Conference (PoCC)/Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) in Nashville, Tennessee. The mission of PoCC is to “provide a safe space for leadership and professional development and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools,” whereas SDLC “focuses on self-reflecting, forming allies, and building community.” The conferences are run by the National Association of Independent Schools.

Surrounded by activists, teachers, and fellow students from around the country, Malzberg, Phillips, and Mullins attended lectures, took part in group discussions, and shared their opinions on the issues that face our society today. The regularly engaged in activities with their family groups, which were smaller breakaway groups of 50 students meant to serve as a microcosm of the conference at large. The three students also attended affinity groups – larger meetings that brought together all attendees of certain identifiers – including Black/African, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, and LGBTQ+. Finally, the conference pulled in a handful of high profile keynote speakers, including CNN journalist Lisa Ling and former white extremist turned author Christian Piccolini.

Near the end of the conference, Malzberg, Phillips, and Mullins created their own activity based on what they had learned at the conference and presented it to the Pingry faculty who attended. While presenting, “many of the teachers were able to open up and speak about their personal struggles and experiences dealing with identity in their lives. It was so impactful for me to delve deeper into my teachers and their lives, but to also see how diverse and interesting our teachers are,” said Mullins.

The students, attending PoCC to initiate their work on the Student Diversity Leadership Committee (SDLC) at Pingry, were pushed out of their comfort zones in a deeply diverse community. According to Mullins, “I had never in my life been around so many people who were as committed to activism as I am. It was amazing.”

Not only did the event influence the students, but the teachers were also greatly affected by this experience. Dr. Megan Jones said her biggest takeaway came from the topics the workshops presented. “One workshop discussed how the faculty can foster respectful dialogue between people with different points of view concerning contentious issues. Another workshop leader discussed how one can determine the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. The workshops were really helpful and thought-provoking,” said Dr. Jones. Dr. Delvin Dinkins noted that his biggest takeaway reflected the themes – “harmony, discord, and the notes in between,” and that to “achieve harmony you have to recognize that there are going to be a lot of bumps, twists, and turns on the journey there. Something harmonious might be fleeting for a very finite period of time and then it becomes discordant and then you have to go through the process again.”

While talking about the student’s presentation, Ms. Meghan Finegan said, “Ethan, Nia, and Noelle posed questions that forced us to reflect and really talk about our feelings related to everything we’d been learning over the past few days. They led it beautifully and it was very emotional; many of us were in tears with our heightened awareness and gratitude for being there.”

Overall, Malzberg said, “PoCC answered so many questions I never knew I had. As a white person, I had always accepted the notion that politics are life-threatening for people of color without understanding why; hearing the experiences of the diverse array of fifty students in my ‘family group’ gave me the context and the ‘why’ to this question.”