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La Jolla students help organize first Regional Student Diversity Summit

Students from The Bishop's School and La Jolla Country Day, Francis Parker and Pacific Ridge schools meet on Zoom.
Students from The Bishop’s School and La Jolla Country Day, Francis Parker and Pacific Ridge schools (and their advisors) have spent the past 10 months planning their first Regional Student Diversity Summit, scheduled for Feb. 27-28 online.
(Courtesy)

Students from La Jolla’s The Bishop’s School and La Jolla Country Day School have helped organize the first Regional Student Diversity Summit, a virtual two-day conference scheduled for Feb. 27-28.

They’re joined in the effort by students from Francis Parker and Pacific Ridge schools. The idea came up last year at The Bishop’s School, but after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person gatherings, the directors of diversity at each school put together an online student meeting to talk about collaboration on the conference.

“At the beginning of our planning process, we laid down the groundwork: Who is this meant for? What issues are we focused on? What do we want students to take away from this? Why does what we do matter?” the conference organizers said in a collective statement. “Obviously, we had disagreements, but through those conflicts we … became more comfortable with each other and began to openly share our ideas.”

The organizers spent about 10 months in weekly meetings securing speakers (including Bettina Love, the award-winning author, former Nasir Jones Hiphop fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University and professor at the University of Georgia) and workshop facilitators, building the website, coordinating scheduling and other details.

The conference theme is “(Un)Covering You: Privilege and Vulnerability” and is focused on “respectful dialogue, the relationship between current and systemic issues, and the potential youth have to catalyze change within their communities and beyond,” according to its website.

The free summit will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, and 8:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28, through The Bishop’s School’s Zoom platform. To register, visit rsdsummit.com and click on “Sign up.”

The 16 students who have worked together on the conference are Marwa Al-Naser, Emma Araya, Maia Carlson, Lila Chitayat, Alexcia Doak, Jaiv Doshi, Elias Herrera, Sean Kim, Zoë McNeil, Connor Qiu, Simrin Ramchandani, Nicholas Simpson, Scott Vu, Carson Walker, Isabella Walther-Meade and Sophie White.

In an email interview, they discussed why this kind of event is important to them and how they believe their generation can make progress in dismantling systems of oppression.

Q: Tell us about the theme you decided on, “(Un)Covering You: Privilege and Vulnerability.” What led you to select that theme? What do you hope the other participants get from this?

A: The first part of the theme, “(Un)Covering You,” has two meanings: You are “uncovering” the stories of others, of yourself and the unconscious biases hidden within you or your community. It is a process of transformation, of coming out of something. It’s about the process of searching and unearthing, whether it be the good or bad you find. The second meaning is an homage to Kenji Yoshino’s book “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights,” where he defines “covering” as a “more complex form of assimilation than conversion or passing,” which affects the four axes of appearance, affiliation, activism and association. Basically, to “cover” is to subdue your identity to cater to the norms of the dominant culture. We hope that this conference will open up ways for students to resist the assimilation of dominant society and to be prouder and more vocal of their own identities and activism.

The second part of the theme, “Privilege and Vulnerability,” is to amplify the conversation we wish to foster at our conference, where people will understand complex intersections of their privilege and be more vulnerable with sharing and receiving stories.

Q: Diversity, equity and inclusion have been talked about a lot, particularly over the past 10 to 15 years and especially since last summer. With the social justice discussions happening within social media, books, television, news outlets and more, why was it important to you to organize a regional summit on the topic?

A: When we first met to plan our conference, we would have never foreseen the scale of events during the summer of 2020. However, like Black Lives Matter, police brutality and so many of the issues that were brought to global attention ... the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have always been prevalent for those affected, even before they entered the mainstream of political discussion. DEI does not have a set agenda; rather, we believe that it is a mindset. It is a mindset that grapples with identity, privilege, bias, community and so much more, and it is something that can be adopted by anyone at any time. We believe in the importance of thinking critically, equitably and justly, so we wanted to organize a regional summit regarding the topics of DEI. Though we will have tough conversations and biases to unravel, students will be able to do it in a comfortable environment that is specifically made for them.

It was also important for us to create a regional summit as a kind of legacy for the students that will follow us. That’s why we put so much emphasis on this year being the first of many. Too often, students dedicated to DEI are deprived of mentorship or the basic organizational structure necessary to succeed when you’re trying to change campus culture. This is especially true of high school environments; students often have to start from scratch after older students graduate, which makes for generations of baby steps.

This summit is infrastructure. DEI in schools is often treated as abstract or immeasurable, and many students who dedicated their high school years to inclusion are left wondering about the extent of their impact. Our summit allows for a continuation of leadership by bringing younger students into the fold, providing them with mentors and an existing framework to accomplish something.

Q: On your website you have rules, agreements and practices for respectful dialogue, including agreeing to “experience awkwardness” and “allow others to learn what you may already know.” Why was it important to you to create these rules and agreements? What kind of difference do you hope this will make for the summit and the experience of the participants?

A: We wanted to create the rules and agreements because we wish to create a space that can have those tough conversations and share our ideas, but also we want to remind our participants that it’s not just about giving your ideas and opinions to other people, but there’s also the act of receiving others’ ideas and opinions. We want there to be introspection through conflict and agreement, and truly, we want this conference to be a safe space, but also a space where debate is encouraged — of course, in a respectful, open-minded way.

Q: What do you make of the point of view that there isn’t much need to actively and deliberately address social justice issues such as racism, sexism or ableism because they will eventually “die out” on their own because younger generations won’t be interested in upholding them? Has that been your experience with your peers?

A: At the bottom of our home page, we have a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” We chose that quote because it forces us to think about the positive and negative space around social justice. We ask ourselves, “What are we doing to further diversity, equity and inclusion in our communities,” but we also should ask, “What are we not doing to further diversity, equity and inclusion? How are our actions feeding into a cycle of institutionalized inequality?”

We consider both the active and passive proponents to addressing social justice, and this point of view of just looking at the passive aspects of social justice (hoping that it’ll “die out” or “just happen automatically”) does not complete the full picture of social justice. Simply critiquing or ignoring the beliefs of the older generation won’t do us any good; rather, we should take their optimism and faith in our generation and actually make it happen.

And to directly answer the question, we’re going to bring up another Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “The time is always right to do what is right.” He says that time itself is neutral, it’s just how you wield it, for better or for worse. We believe that even when we think that the younger generation won’t be interested in upholding systems of oppression, it is way easier said than done. Institutionalized systems of oppression are burdens we cannot simply let go and ignore, but they are so deeply ingrained ... that simply thinking that they will be wholly abandoned in a generation is an aspiration that will take more than just dreaming. Our experiences with peers, and even with ourselves, reveal that there are systems we uphold and that we still have so much more work to do in order to decenter and relearn a true world of diversity, equity and inclusion. ◆