By Madison B. ’17
If you were to ask the six students and two faculty members who went to Atlanta this winter about their experience, they would all say the same thing: “There is no place like SDLC.”
None of us knew what we were walking into when we embarked on this personal and educational journey. We had only our expectations, and even those did not accurately prepare us for what we would experience on our intense, action-filled, inspiring trip.
SDLC, the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, is the student-focused program of the People of Color Conference (POCC). Several students and teachers have attended SDLC in the past, but for Kiara F. ’18, as well as seniors Alesha A., Aarica F., Lenaiya F., Isaac S. and myself, it was our first time. We plunged headfirst into the programming with a standard welcome from the conference coordinators and keynote speech from Bryan Stevenson, a prominent social justice activist and lawyer. He shared stories of inmates on death row, and how compassion and commitment could change the lives of the disadvantaged as well as our own lives.
Surely this was it, I thought. The conference would be a collection of eloquent speeches from acclaimed activists, lessons given through presentations. I was ready to listen to lectures, to take notes, to be seated in large, somewhat impersonal audiences. What came next, however, was more eye-opening than I could’ve imagined.
The teachers were dismissed to their workshops, leaving about 600 kids in the convention hall. It was then that SDLC organizer Rodney Glasgow took the stage, and then that I learned SDLC would be a truly unique experience.
“We’re going to open up the mic,” he said in a soft, steady voice. “If you have something that you’d like to say, some feelings that you want to express, come on up.”
Then, I realized, that SDLC is entirely what the students make of it. And here we were, surrounded by other students who were passionate, motivated, and ready to work to envision a more just and equal future for everyone. The excitement started to build in the room, filling up the convention center. How could we not make something amazing of it?
I became even more certain of this as we did something called “the Silent Movement,” where every kid had the chance to identify themselves how they wanted simply by standing up when they felt like a statement described them. If you’ve never heard of a room of excited high school students remaining completely silent out of love and respect for their peers, that’s what the Silent Movement is.
Our school group was separated. Each of us would be whisked away on separate tracks, becoming totally immersed in a friendly environment surrounded by like-minded people. But we weren’t afraid or nervous. Everywhere we turned, we made new friends.
We were introduced to our family groups, the essential unit of SDLC. Each named after a famous activist, the family groups were where all of the discussions and learning took place. We did a variety of activities tackling the eight Core Cultural Identifiers: age, gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, family structure, religion, and ability. These categories are the universal qualities that we use to define ourselves in society, no matter where in the world you are.
The wide differences that exist in each identifier make up what we call “diversity.” Over a mere two days, the family groups became inseparable as we shared our experiences in each of the categories. The family groups truly became like family.
In addition to family groups, SDLC is unique because it organizes affinity groups: groups of people who identify like you. At SDLC, the affinity groups were all of the different races of the world, as well as one group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer students.
For many of us, the affinity groups were the best part of SDLC: To be surrounded by people like you, who experience the same struggles and celebrate the same heritage as you, is to truly find a home.
On other occasions, the entire student population was gathered together to hear talks from diversity advocates like Zak Ebrahim and André Robert Lee.
We also did fun, silly things, like an SDLC talent show where anyone could show off their skills to an adoring audience. The positivity and camaraderie in the room was dazzling. In only two days, it felt like I had met and heard the stories of 600-plus students from across the country and the world. No matter who they were, they were my friends, and I was theirs.
I was not alone. “I get emotional just thinking about the love, hope, and knowledge I received,” said Aarica. “The people I met, the stories I heard, and the memories I made at SDLC seriously changed my life.”
At the end, Rodney led us through an exercise called “passing the peace,” something that will stick with me as long as I live. In a time of harsh divisions and harsher words, 600 completely different students all were able to simply turn to one another, exchange a smile or a hug. To anyone I saw, I could say: “Peace be with you.” Without fail, they would reply: “And also with you.”
As a young person, I predict that SDLC will be one of the formative moments of my life. I came away from it hopeful, inspired, and most importantly ready to do the work that needs to be done. I came away from it a better communicator, a better activist, and, I truly believe, a better person.