Difficult Dialogue: SEM Students Dive into Diversity

Students from across WNY explored issues of diversity and inclusion at a conference at the Nichols School.


The evening of Thursday, January 12, high school students from private schools across Western New York gathered in the Nichols School Flickinger Performing Arts Center for the opening of the third annual Nichols School Inclusivity Conference sponsored by Education Collaborative of Western New York. The Nichols School Inclusivity Conference aims to promote diversity and exclusivity in area private schools.

The following morning, Friday, January 13, over 90 students gathered for an opening led by student organizers Kelah Winfield and Myles Hervey (Nichols School ’17), keynote speaker and community activist Donisha Prendergast, and high school poet Joshua Thermidor (St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute ’17). Opening remarks focused on the conference goals: broadening students’ perspectives and connecting them with diversity leaders from other schools. “A lot of the conference was focused on community building,” said Kelah in an interview following the conference. (Disclosure: This reporter served as a student workshop facilitator.)

Ten SEM students excitedly awaited transportation to Nichols School Friday morning. L-R Standing: Allana DePaz ’18, Maddy Cherr ’18, Maya Simmons ’18, Joah Smith ’19, Casey Ball ’18, Morgan Baker ’17, Chelsea Anderson ’18, Aileen Cotter ’18. Sitting: Jade Johnson ’17, Emily Marie Jimenez ’17. Photo c/o Ms. Kelly.

Much of the conference draws inspiration from the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) national conference for students engaged in diversity work in their schools. Kelah attended SDLC in 2014. In the past three years, SEM has sent four students each to SDLC 2014 and 2016.

Mrs. Kanika Durland, SEM English teacher, diversity coordinator and associate college counselor organized registration and transportation for the 10 SEM students who attended the conference.

“There is a tremendous value in sending SEM students to conferences, particularly ones that focus on such meaningful and essential issues like dignity, social justice, diversity, and equity,” she said. “Students routinely come out of these experiences asking valuable questions and pursuing more thoughtful and reflective paths. Of course different conferences have certain strengths. I’ve been most impressed and moved by the People of Color Conference/Student Diversity Leadership Conference. Seeing students’ awe and joy in being reflected and celebrated in that space is unspeakably beautiful.”

Due to expense and registration capacity for SDLC only a small number of SEM students have the opportunity to attend each year: most recent The Nichols School Inclusivity Conference provides a similar experience that more SEM students can attend. SEM attendees overwhelmingly expressed satisfaction with the experience.

“The conference was definitely refreshing and a new experience that I would want to experience again. Being brought together with other people from different backgrounds but concerned with the same cause was uplifting as well as eye opening,” said Allana DePaz ’18.

In addition, SEM students drew connection between what they learned at the conference and what they would like to see within SEM. “I found power in my session during the “Unseen Tears” documentary about Native boarding schools,” said Jade Johnson ’17. “I think this needs to be talked about more in the classroom.”

The Nichols School Inclusivity Conference has undergone numerous changes over its three-year span, including a change in name: prior to this year, the conference was known as the Nichols School Diversity Conference. This year was Joshua Thermidor’s second year in attendance. “It was different in structure and I liked that. Last year I felt like the affinity group aspect could be expanded on.”

In prior years the majority of conference time was spent in workshops on subjects that ranged from local activism to best practices in allyship. This year the conference split time nearly evenly between mixed-group workshops, many of which focused on Native American history and culture, and affinity group spaces.

The remains of an affinity group session. In workshops, student facilitators asked their peers to reflect on the impact their multi-racial/multi-ethnic identity has on their lives.

Affinity groups are workshop spaces for students that share a common identity. Affinity groups may be centered around racial and ethnic identity or around other aspects of identity. Traditionally, the purpose of affinity groups is to allow groups of people to find power and solidarity in their common identity and to discuss topics that may be difficult to address with people of other identities present. The Nichols School Inclusivity Conference offered affinity groups for students of different racial, ethnic, religious, and ideological backgrounds as well as LGBTQIA+ and disability identities. For exceptionally small marginalized groups – such as multi-racial/multi-ethnic, Native, and Middle Eastern people – affinity groups are especially powerful.

“The affinity groups were a highlight of my experience,” said Allana.

“The Black affinity was pretty cool. It was constructive in the sense that I felt like we spoke extensively on issues in the black community such as the way we perceive ourselves and the way we are perceived in the media,” said Joshua, SJCI ’17.  Affinity groups make these necessary conversations possible.

“One affinity group I was in was the white affinity group. I honestly thought it might end up being a mess. How in the world would a bunch of white people productively discuss race, without any people of color? However, afterwards, I started seeing what the benefits of this could be if implemented at SEM,” said Maddy Cherr ’18. “One that I thought about and that we talked about within the group is that, when we try to discuss race, privilege, and systematic oppression in classes, there is often a moment in which the teacher, or the entire class, focuses in on one person of color. This single person is expected to gently teach the class, devoid of anger or negative emotion, about the struggles of an enormous group of people. Affinity groups such as the one I was in could prevent this uncomfortable experience at SEM, while still teaching people about their privilege, how it hurts others, and how it can be fought against.”

Affinity groups also allow people of similar identities to recognize the diversity within their own group. “It was interesting to see how experiences had been different among us, yet we were still united by a common denominator,” said Maddy.

One of Jade’s few conference critiques surrounded affinity groups.”I wanted to have more time,” she said.

The idea that we should be inviting and respectful to everyone is an unassailable premise.”

— Mrs. Durland, diversity coordinator

Despite the positive response from student attendees, some may still rest unconvinced of SEM’s need for spaces like the Nichols School Inclusivity Conference. To them, Mrs. Durland responds, “The idea that we should be inviting and respectful to everyone is an unassailable premise. It is so inherently good that we see this message introduced and accepted at the earliest stages of our educational career. There are all sorts of ‘hard’ researched rationales for why diversity, equity, and inclusion are important for communities, but I rest comfortably with the ‘softer’ reasoning that they are important because it is just and good.”

“Doing this conference and seeing how happy people were to come was food for the soul,” said Kelah. But she cautioned against complacency once students return to their home schools. “Take what you learned from the conference and try to spread it throughout your community.”

“I’d like to bring back the feeling of understanding that your life is different from another person’s,” said Joshua. “People know that everyone’s lives are different, but people don’t understand how or why. That’s important. It’s like half answering a question.”

For Jade, her takeaway was a specific activity. “I think that [affinity groups] are an important thing to have at any educational institution that has a diverse student body.”

“We’ve all been working on this project for months, but the most important thing to remember when the actual conference is over is that we can’t just stop. There is a lot more work that needs to be done,” said Kelah in closing. “This is just the beginning.”