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The People of Color Conference

Ms. Talusan, Ms. Rao, Dr. O, Ms. Ellis and Ms. Chen

Ms. Talusan, Ms. Rao, Dr. O, Ms. Ellis and Ms. Chen

Each year, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) hosts the People of Color Conference (PoCC). This conference really addresses the experiences of people who identify as having heritage from African, Latino, Asian, Native American peoples. This conference also invites people who identify as Allies – people from European heritage who actively work to dismantle systems of oppression.

This year, five Park School faculty traveled to Tampa, Florida for three full days of learning, engagement, and professional development: Ms. Talusan (Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Ms. Rao, Grade V; Dr. Moorehead-Slaughter, Psychologist; Ms. Ellis, Grade II and Ms. Chen, Mandarin).

But, what does it all mean? Why do we need a People of Color Conference? What happens there?

A beautiful thing happened on the way

It is quite possible that, throughout my day, I might only run into a handful of people of color — and, that handful is usually commuting in a car with me to and from Park School. So, okay, maybe I run into more than a small handful. For my entire life, and even now, most of my day is spent in the company of people who are White.

But, on that morning at Logan Airport, I kept running into colleagues and students who were flying to Tampa to attend the conference. And, yes, those people were people of color. We then all continued onto the plane. And, soon, the plane was filled with mostly people of color. Smiling faces. Warm greetings. Lots of conversations with seat mates who started out as strangers but who exited the plane with “I hope to see you at the conference!” (Bragging Moment: As a mini-celebrity, I got some extra “Hey! That’s Liza Talusan over there!” No shame in my game, friends. No shame in my game.). 

I landed and made my way to the taxi line — filled with people of color heading in the same direction. My hotel lobby – filled with people of color. My walk to the convention center – filled with people of color. For the next three days, I would be surrounded by faces that looked similar to mine, skin tones in every shade darker and lighter (within a range) of mine, and attitudes and approaches that were as radical and loving as my own.

For the most part, we all wore name tags. But, even when we weren’t wearing our lime green lanyards, there was a sense of belonging and a sense of knowing — knowing that we shared a life experience that, despite our ethnic differences, we understood together. I never felt different. I never felt like I didn’t belong. I never felt like people were looking at me. I never felt like the only one. I never felt like I had to justify my existence or my commitment to equity.

Yes, these are all things I feel on a daily basis as a woman of color in a predominantly white community. And, I am not alone.

Liberation through Education

I participated in sessions that explored the liberation through education. I talked with teachers who believed that their jobs — their calling — was to create conditions for children to learn, and that these conditions must be affirming, challenging, and culturally reflective. I learned that racism must be dismantled through education. I learned that there is power in numbers and power in love. I learned that we must “comfort the disturb and disturb the comfortable.” I learned that we, as educators, send powerful messages about who belongs and who does not. I learned that even the slightest omission — being left out of a conversation or left out of a hiring process — has massive impact on a school’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. I learned that I am not alone in this fight.

Messages Matter

My friend and fellow faculty member, Ms. Rao, recalled a story she had heard in a keynote address that week. She said the speaker had the great fortune of growing up in a school where the principal was an Indian woman. That principal wore a sari every single day to work. When the young girl and her mother were out, one day, she saw a group of women in saris walking towards her. This young girl said to her mother, “Look, Mom! A group of principals!” Look, a group of principals. That would not have been my first response. I have grown up with stereotypes about others, and never in my life have I met a principal who is Indian. And, I certainly have not met any principals who come to work in culturally relevant clothing. If I saw that group of women, I simply would have said, “Look, Mom. Indian women.” But, no. This young girl saw leaders. This young girl saw change makers. How are we teaching our own children who are leaders? What do our children believe that leaders look like? Dress like? Talk like?

I had the great fortune of presenting a workshop on culturally relevant leadership to a room of over 125 people. Thankfully, a number of people stayed after to talk to me. Some cried. Some simply said, “Thank you. I have no other words. Thank you.” Some were upset with what I shared and asked for action steps about how to move forward. Some smiled. I believe that the opportunity to talk about identity and leadership was transformative for many people in that room that day.

Our messages our powerful.

As parents, teachers, learners and caring adults, it is our responsibility to provide conditions for children to learn about different cultures, experiences, people, approaches and lives. We are responsible for giving our children information about who they are and from where they come. We are responsible for giving our children opportunities to define and shift who they are and where they want to be.

At Park School, we are constantly on this journey. And, together, we make things matter. I am thankful to have traveled this journey with Park teachers. Through writing poetry and haikus, eating dinner by a large picture window, and powerful conversations after dinner, we got a chance to build capacity for this work.

To read more conversations about the People of Color Conference, go to Twitter and use the hashtag #naispocc to read what others have posted!

Peace and Park,