“While diversity, equity, and inclusion sound like big words, they are just other ways to say belonging,” began Eric Yarwood, Executive Director of the Education Collaborative of WNY (EdCo), as he opened the inaugural Student Diversity Leadership conference for 180 local private high school students at Niagara University this week. The Conference, sponsored by EdCo and facilitated by Eastern Education Resource Collaborative (East Ed), was a full-day immersion in identity, action, and justice designed to help students better understand issues of DEI and the role that they can take to help everyone feel a sense of belonging.
The students, representing a diversity of ethnic backgrounds from 13 local private high schools, chose to participate in the full-day conference and to complete selected books to be used for discussion and reflection at the conference. The students participated in exercises designed to help them understand their own and group identities, to learn appropriate language and terms to discuss difference and equity, and to develop skills to identify and address stereotypes and prejudice. A central goal of the conference was to enable students to communicate effectively across difference and to commit to improving their school communities.
The conference is a part of a larger multi-year initiative undertaken by EdCo and supported by The John R. Oishei Foundation to develop a strategic framework to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive schools. EdCo is working with East Ed, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the pursuit of academic excellence via equitable teaching practices and healthy school climates, to help guide its work. The overall goals of the initiative include developing equitable and inclusive school environments where students can thrive, to provide opportunities for adults to learn and collaborate on these issues, and to provide opportunities for students to grow to become leaders of equity and inclusion in their schools and the broader community.
Elizabeth Denevi, associate director of East Ed and co-founder of Teaching While White, served as the program director for the conference and led the students in exercises to begin to explore issues of identity. East Ed is an experienced facilitator, having led similar student conferences for nearly 20 years. Denevi also led the DEI Summer Institute earlier this year for local private high school administrators and teachers. That conference focused on three major areas including the Foundations of Diversity Pedagogy, Curricular Scope and Sequence, and Leadership Best Practices. Presentations, discussions and interactive learning were all part of the program and allowed participants to learn from each other as well as from local and national experts.
The Student Diversity Leadership conference included both full group activities and smaller group discussions to enable students to learn and to share their experiences and reflections on selected readings and related topics related to DEI topics with students from all participating schools. Students facilitated the discussions with their peers to ensure authentic conversations among students. At the end of the day, sessions among students from their own schools were held to share their learnings and discuss actions they can take in their own school environments to ensure a healthy environment exists for all students.