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Breaking Barriers in Nashville, Tennessee

As the Packer collective of teachers and students slowly re-entered the world of New York, the emotion elicited by the conversations held over their three days spent in Nashville, Tennessee still remained with them. This group was comprised of Packer students and teachers, all of whom were people of color, who traveled to Nashville during the first week of December to attend the People of Color Conference and the Student Diversity Leadership Conference. 

The People of Color Conference, also known as PoCC, is a conference for employees of independent schools from across the United States. At the conference, the teachers discussed how to achieve equity for people of color within their institutions, and learned how to further enhance the roles of people of color within the independent school community. The teachers returned from Nashville with, according to the PoCC mission statement, a replenished “commitment to equity and justice in teaching and learning.”

A diverse range of Packer faculty attended the conference, some of whom have attended for many years, such as Ms. Tené Howard, Director of Global Programs and Community Engagement, as well as others who attended the conference for the first time this year. Ms. Howard attended the inaugural Student Diversity Leadership Conference as a high school student herself, and has returned as a teacher ever since becoming a member of the Packer faculty. 

“It has been amazing to see the growth of the conference, moving from small hotel ballroom meetings into entire convention centers,” said Ms. Howard.

Packer’s influence on the PoCC extended beyond Ms. Howard, as this year Ms. Cara Hill, Upper School English Teacher, made a presentation at the conference for the first time. Ms. Hill said that “as a presenter, my thinking was: what are the ways in which we can talk about intersectionality and inclusivity when looking at traditional texts in the Western canon, something I had not thought about previously.”

Through her presentation, Ms. Hill was not only able to share her own ideas but hear about the ideas of others as well. “The talk was actually a workshop, so having different people from different schools participating in what I presented also gave me ideas to bring back to my practice,” explained Ms. Hill.

Ms. Hill described the discussions held between the educators of color as “invigorating,” and said that “witnessing all of the different ways people were thinking very intentionally about inclusion and intersectionality was inspiring.”

“For me, it’s an ongoing process, not a definitive statement about these issues. I am now thinking more intentionally about other aspects of identity such as class, sexuality, and gender definitions at Packer, especially as relates to how students and employees here are experiencing their identities as people of color,” said Ms. Hill on the improvements she believes need to be made in order to make our community more equitable.

Sr. Rashad Randolph, Upper School Spanish Teacher, was another one of the attendees at the conference. Sr. Randolph walked away from the conference with a newfound appreciation for accepting one’s own identity:  “As Larissa [Dzegar, Upper School Dean and English teacher], so bravely and beautifully explained during our Chapel talk, you have to come to terms with being your authentic self, not at the expense of others.”

Sr. Randolph also urged the Packer community to speak more deeply about issues surrounding equity and to not edge away from these conversations, no matter how difficult they may be. 

“People are afraid of having meaningful and important conversations because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing. I don’t want them to tell me what they think I want to hear, because then we are not really going to get to the crux of the problems that exist here. We have to have the willingness to be vulnerable and put ourselves out there,” he said.

Zoe Mercado (‘20), a student attendee, was in resounding agreement with Sr. Randolph. “Playing the victim when someone addresses you for making a microaggression is counterproductive. They are most likely doing it so you are aware that what you said or did was a microaggression, and want to prevent you from doing it again moving forward. Accepting that you made a microaggression and trying to prevent it from happening again is the first step to making Packer a safer space,” she said.

Many of the profound conversations mentioned by Sr. Randolph that arose during the conference happened when educators broke into affinity groups separated by ethnicity. Ms. Lindsay Velazco, Lower School Science Teacher, said that “one thing I and many many multiracial people struggle with is whether we are ‘enough.’ I often catch myself wondering if I’m ‘white enough’ to go to a white affinity group, or if I’m ‘Puerto Rican enough’ to go to an affinity group for people of color. At this conference, there was an affinity group especially for people who identify as multiracial. We looked at all the different colors of the attendees and we just marveled at how we all presented given our varied lineages. It was a moving, glorious moment.”

Mr. César Ayala, Middle School Administrative Assistant, described some moments that were powerful to him, specifically mentioning his interactions with other educators at the conference. Mr. Ayala said that “I met people whose parents were crop pickers, I met teachers whose parents came from low-income families, but yet their kids, the people that I met, were educators in this world, and are shaping the ideas that people of color can make an impact, even coming from low-income families and countries that are not the United States.”

He mentioned another impactful moment during the opening ceremony with over 6,400 people present. Mr. Ayala said “When everyone was sitting down and there were a couple of speakers on stage, they began by saying ‘please stand if you are the Dr. Fords,’ ‘please stand if you are the Trayvon Martins,’ and ‘please stand if you are the caravan.’ I stood up at that moment because I am from Mexico and all of my family lives on the border; I am the only one who left. It is really hard, even though my family is fine and they are not directly affected physically, it is really hard for us. When I stood up, without having to say anything, it was a very powerful moment. I think silence can be very powerful. That moment in silence was something I will never forget.”

Maya Joseph (‘20), one of the students at the conference mentioned the same moment. She said “One keynote speaker was Mark Lamont Hill and he had been fired from his job as a CNN political commentator two days before. When he got to the podium he said, “Thanks for keeping me here.” He received a very passionate standing ovation and began crying. It was very clear how touched he was. I had never seen such unanimous and bountiful support in a room before.”

Ms. Dzegar added to the list of powerful moments, recounting the moment during the conference when all of the Heads of School that were people of color were called to the stage. “A moment I thought was truly beautiful was when they asked all of the people of color that were heads of school from across the country to stand on the stage, and it wasn’t even that crowded up there. That first made me sad that they were so few in the entire country, but then it made me proud of Mr. DeJesus and the accomplishment that he has made because he has really accomplished something by becoming a head of school. It also inspired me to want to be a head of school,” she said.

The inspiring moments at PoCC are influencing the way that these teachers interact with others here at Packer, especially their students, in their everyday lives. Ms. Velazco said that “The experience at PoCC enhances my teaching because I view my students’ work, appearance, identities as only part of a very complex story. It makes me love all my students more.”

The lessons learned from the PoCC are being brought back to our community by the faculty that made the trip, as they continue to make Packer a better place for people of all backgrounds. Packer needs to continue to improve in all aspects of diversity and equity, and Sr. Randolph summarized it most effectively when he said, “If you are involved with diversity work, no matter where you are, diversity work is never done.”

Yusuf Haque is currently a junior at The Packer Collegiate Institute and the layout editor for the Packer Prism this year. He has worked as a reporter and assistant layout editor, and has worked on a number of pieces for the Prism. These include topics such as sports, profiles, and entertainment. Outside of the Prism he is a member of the debate club, a leader of miscellaneous skills club, and on the varsity soccer team. He also is able to solve a Rubik’s Cube. Yusuf can be reached at yuhaque@packer.edu

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