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Conference Changes Student and Faculty Identity Perspectives

Sanford’s school-wide theme IDENTITY has placed increased focus and awareness on the diverse ways in which people see themselves, as well as how they interact with others. Two faculty members, Science Instructor Jamy Haughey and Upper School Counselor Sarah Satinsky took the opportunity to explore this topic when they attended the NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC) held in Seattle, Washington, in December.
Six Upper School students—Milo Watson '21, Nia Naylor '20, Maggy Ross '21, Savannah Shepherd '20, Melissa Daniels '21, and Alessandra (Alle) Prezioso '20 joined them for the concurrent Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC).

The four-day conference attracted more than 7,000 participants from across the country, who were eager to make connections with people who looked like them, or as was the case for the 1,100 white attendees, wanted to show support, as they explored topics related to this year’s PoCC theme Before. Beyond. Amplifying Our Intelligence to Liberate, Co-Create, and Thrive. The SDLC theme was 1954. 2019. With All Deliberate Speed. Integrating Schools, Minds, and Hearts with Fierce Urgency of Now.

Haughey shared: “It was very invigorating to be with people who look like me and face similar challenges in their respective workplaces. As one of two faculty members of color at Sanford and one of four total full-time staff of color, I am limited when it comes to exploring my identity development with my school community. Therefore, it was powerful to connect with people where I did not have to think of ways to articulate myself clearly in order to be understood. The amount of identity development I went through, as well as our student attendees, in such a short period of time was life changing. I am not only a different teacher, I am a different person.”

Like Haughey, Satinsky found the conference to be personally and professionally impactful. She states: “I was glad to be able to attend with a colleague of color and have the opportunity to bring students. We had many powerful conversations beyond the confines of the conference sessions. Students and teachers attended separate programs, but we shared the keynote speakers, so we had some common ground to use as a springboard for discussion. As a white attendee, I appreciated the chance to truly focus on listening and thinking about my own experiences and biases, as well as our school culture. Because of this conference, I believe I am in a better position to help facilitate and support any student or faculty initiatives as Sanford continues to think about identity and works on institutional changes regarding diversity and inclusion.”

It was so important to the six students, which was the maximum a school could send, to attend the conference in Seattle, they spent the opening months of the school year organizing fundraisers to help defray the costs. While the experiences for each student were unique, they all used words like “powerful and life-changing” when asked to describe the conference. Savannah explained: “The SDLC was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. For the first time in my life, I felt accepted in a group of other students that truly represented the diversity of this country and other countries around the world. I learned so much about other aspects of people’s lives that I had not previously thought about. I am so excited to bring everything I learned back to Sanford.”

Milo elaborated: “I really wanted to go to the SDLC because I am a co-officer in Sanford’s Gay-Straight Alliance, which is working to create a diverse and equitable campus environment. As someone who identifies as transgender/queer, I wanted to learn how to facilitate discussions and create a space in which everyone feels respected, valued, and safe. We put in some very long and intense days while at the conference, and I have come back with the goal of working towards getting more LGBTQ+ inclusive education into Sanford’s Upper School curriculum by having a lesson or two in US History classes on the LGBTQ+ civil rights’ movement, more education on LGBTQ+ identities added to the Health curriculum, and a novel with an LGBTQ+ theme added to the ninth or tenth-grade English program.”

Maggy’s goals for the future are not as specific, but her attendance also energized her. She shared: “I have a very strong stance on the issue of inclusion. I told Ms. Smith I really wanted to attend the SDLC because I wanted to learn more and be able to help make Sanford an even more supportive school for people from all different backgrounds and identities. At the conference, we had to be open and honest about personal experiences, and we talked about topics that many of us had not discussed before, which actually made it easier to get to know people and create friendships.”

Most of the students mentioned a group activity based on eight cultural identifiers: race/ethnicity, family structure, socioeconomics, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, and ability. As each identifier was called out, students who identified with it stood up. Maggy noted: “Being able to see the similarities and differences in the room was really powerful.” Milo elaborated: “Depending on where you are in the world, these identifiers dictate who has power and who does not. Since we all have different combinations of identifiers and experiences that we give importance to, this activity helped us to contextualize everyone’s differences and the struggles we do or do not face because of these identifiers. I think this would be a great activity to add to the advisory curriculum.”

The issue of power impacted Alle in a different form. She explained: “I was made deeply aware that in most aspects of my life, I am surrounded by people who look like me, yet there are many people who are not. I am never really going to be able to know that feeling. I appreciated learning strategies and tactics to use when facilitating difficult conversations that have to take place in order to move forward with the goal of spreading acceptance. Additionally, when someone not of color wants to help in this area, we have to be careful to avoid the ‘savior”’ approach, as that still operates from a position of power. Only when we can work together person-to-person will real change take place.”

Haughey concluded: “A fire has been lit inside of me, and I have a burning desire to take my efforts to foster diversity even further. How my young daughter sees the world and how the world sees her has already changed. Our family conversations now have more sophisticated language as she develops her own identity. At Sanford, we are fortunate because the school administration is in total support of all initiatives and institutionally wants to continue to work on diversity, inclusion, and equity. It is going to be an ongoing process, but our eyes have been opened to the type of environment that Sanford could be and aspires to be, and I am excited to be a part of that work.”

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