People of Color Conference 2016: Some Thoughts on Power

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Identity as the organizing premise.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference is over. I’m sad because I was having such a wonderful time in the company of so many thoughtful, engaged colleagues. I’m happy, however, that I had space and time to make connections that matter.

While I was in Atlanta at PoCC I observed the following:

  • The People of Color Conference places identity at the forefront of our conversations. This is uncommon among education conferences in my experience.
  • Because identity is the organizing premise, each individual attendee is called on to  engage on a personal level within this professionally oriented context.
  • As we talk about who we are, how we identify and where we find ourselves, we also come across intersections and overlap – no one is just one thing. Each of us is deliciously complex which can make for exchanges that can be confusing and clarifying for different parties, for different reasons, at different stages.
  • This is a conference where we learn to hold tension, work with and through discomfort, acknowledge judgment when we are unable to suspend it.
  • I witnessed thousands more smiles than frowns.
  • There are many more indy ed Twitter fans out there than I realized. The multiple real-time tweets are the gifts that keep on giving.
  • Hugging was prevalent.
  • The empathy lamp was switched on.
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Many more smiles than frowns. Honored to be with Caroline Blackwell of NAIS and Hazel Symonette of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To be on the other side of this experience is to have gained a shade more insight on who I am and strive to be. One thing I struggle with, however, is reporting. I’m not a very good reporter. To be able to succinctly describe how moved I was by keynote speakers Bryan Stevenson, Brittney Packnett, Zak Ebrahim, or Richard Blanco might take me a lifetime. To share how bowled over I was by the spoken word poetry of 15 yr old Royce Mann or simply star struck in the presence of Hank Aaron, Congressman John Lewis and Christine King Ferris on the same stage – seems beyond me.

What I know and feel is how these voices and their messages are working inside me daily. In this way, my PoCC experience will not let me rest. Yet. Rather, it is leading me in the direction of “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the words of Congressman Lewis. I’m spending time meditating on power and identity and where these intersect with education. The NAIS People of Color Conference felt like my own personal “Identity, Education and Power” Conference.

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Brittany Packnett was the closing speaker. A godsend.

Brittany Packnett, who is a product of independent schools, told our assembly: “In this room sits POWER. You are either developing leaders, or you are one.” I have been thinking about this ever since. Yes, we – who are the ones we’ve been waiting for- have power. Gathered together in intentional and supportive community, we have power. Sharing our expertise, claiming our seats at the table, unleashing our brilliance – we have power. I thought about titling this post “Power of Color Conference” – because of the power we find in coming together over and through our individual and collective identities.

And we are people working largely in elite spaces. Several independent schools cater to the 1% and even to the top 10%  and 20%- if we educators of color are there, we inevitably need to be aware of and thinking about power – our own and that of others. Knowing that the majority of community members who finance and govern our institutions rarely look like us, and that of those same institutions very few were built to (also) support the intellect and advancement of people of color – this is a necessary and real understanding we ought to have. It does not mean, however, that these schools and academies are not excellent places for us to work, to teach, to coach in or for us to lead. On the contrary, our schools can be extremely open and hopeful places, encouraging and strategically forward-thinking places. And they are, for the most part, predominately white institutions (PWIs).

Ultimately, the People of Color Conference seeks to bridge this divide between the reality of PWIs and the still somewhat tentative and/or limited supply of educators of color on their campuses. Many teachers and staff of color come to the conference as a sort of oasis of fellowship. It can be tiring to stay in the role of the “lonely only”* or to be just one of a handful of folks of color at a PWI. PoCC provides that unusual opportunity to ‘flip the script’ and find (in every sense of the word) ourselves in the majority; to experience power in numbers.

After the fact I feel both restored and stirred up. I spent valuable time in a “seat” of power and the act of “knowing my place” is irretrievably expanded.

As I rise, stride and direct my movement forward, I’m on the lookout for justice – the kind that extends beyond ‘just us.’ Attending PoCC provided that necessary affirmation – I’m not alone. I have supporters and co-collaborators. We have power.

Let’s do the good that needs doing and remember to “fight issues, not people.”

 

*I am grateful to my dear friends in the digital humanities,  Maha Bali and Anne-Marie Perez, author of the article “Lowriding Through the Digital Humanities” for the reference to this term  “lonely only.”

 “Most people, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases.”

All images by @edifiedlistener.

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