SDLC leaders reflect on conference and future goals for Potomac 

Isabel Engel and Ali O'Brien

This past winter, six Potomac juniors participated in the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). Normally held as a large in-person event, the conference, which was online this year, is, according to its website, “a multiracial, multicultural gathering of upper school student leaders (grades 9-12) from across the U.S. and abroad. SDLC focuses on self-reflecting, forming allies, and building community.” 

Two of the Current’s editors conducted email interviews with the SDLC leaders BJ McNeill, Mina Bahadori, and Andrea Villafuerte to learn more about their experiences at the conference, upcoming programming, and the changes they hope to implement at Potomac. 

Editor’s note: The responses below have been edited for clarity and length. 

The Current: Why did you attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference and what did you hope to get out of it? What were your expectations vs. the actual experience? 

BJ: I primarily wanted to attend SDLC to learn and become more invested in DEI work. Having attended a predominantly African American school for ten years before coming to Potomac, I was never put in an environment where DEI work is critical like it is here. When I came to Potomac, I always found myself being quiet during such important conversations because I hadn’t found my voice yet, perhaps because I had never had to use my voice. At SDLC, I found an opportunity to find my voice and educate myself. I also wanted a space where I could share experiences, and as I mentioned earlier, I did not have that voice yet and I was uncomfortable at times because I did not know what to say. I saw SDLC as an opportunity to overcome this discomfort. Besides being virtual, everything I expected was reality. Everyone was so caring, open, and different. It was like the Disney World of diversity. I got to learn from others’ experiences and speak on my own, just as advertised. 

Andrea: I wanted to attend SDLC because I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to learn more about myself and other students with different experiences from my own. I was particularly excited to form allies from a multitude of diverse backgrounds and to connect with an affinity group of Latinx teens. I also wanted to be part of this conference to strengthen my cross-cultural communication skills as well as learning about allyship and advocacy, which would allow me to become a more effective changemaker in the Potomac community. I was really excited to travel to St. Louis and fully immerse myself in the experience, and I was disappointed when the conference had to be online. However, my expectations were still high and the conference definitely surpassed these expectations. It was incredibly informative, engaging, and collaborative. I did not expect to learn so much about my identity and the experiences of others during those four days. 

The Current: Did the virtual environment of the Student Diversity Leadership Conference affect your experience? More specifically, how did the community aspect of the conference adapt to the online setting? 

Mina: I think the worst part of the online format was saying goodbye to everyone. Clicking the leave meeting button didn’t feel like a sufficient way of saying goodbye to all of these new people I had met. Technology, technological errors, and zoom bombing were problems that were annoying during the conference. One aspect of the virtual setting that I really liked was that we all made spreadsheets to share our information so staying in touch has not been difficult.

Andrea: The virtual environment definitely impacted my experience. Initially, I found it difficult to make connections and the activities seemed slightly more impersonal. But by the end of the conference, I was able to connect with many people through social media and all of the activities transferred almost perfectly to the online format.

The Current: What were your biggest takeaways from the conference and how do you hope to implement lessons learned within the Potomac community? 

Mina: I think my biggest takeaway was realizing how much more work we need to do. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that such a diverse group was possible. It was amazing to see so many people of color on one screen. I also have never felt so comfortable and open to talking, and I hope that Potomac becomes a more open community as well. Everyone at SDLC was so interested in DEI and I hope more people at Potomac, especially white people, work on becoming better allies.

Andrea: I think my biggest takeaways from the conference were about how institutional racism impacts different groups in America as well as the importance of intersectionality whenever you’re thinking about identity. I was inspired by many of the activities that allowed for open discussion and I learned the most from this format. I think that by doing the same things at Potomac–making connections and hearing the experiences of people different from you–we can implement these same lessons within the Potomac community and help make our school environment more inclusive and equitable. 

The Current: As SDLC leaders, what are your plans for DEI-related programming in the upcoming year? How did the conference inspire this work? 

BJ: We plan to continue our Diversity Themed Days as we have done in various Panther Times over the past few weeks. We will also continue to work behind the scenes with different faculty members to normalize DEI work around the school, instead of treating it as a one- or two-time a year affair. After hearing people’s experiences and having support from the community leaders at SDLC, I was inspired to make a change in the community I am in, instead of waiting or letting the opportunity pass me by.

Andrea: In the upcoming year, we will continue to plan large assemblies and small group activities that allow for informative presentations about social issues, talks with DEI leaders, open conservation, and activities that allow people to share their perspectives. We hope that as we continue to do more of these activities, we will increase the student body’s motivation to attend, share, and go to affinity clubs on their own time. We also hope that this will help influence the administration to make larger changes. 

The Current: Over the last few months, we have gathered in family groups to engage in identity-related discussions. What was the inspiration for these family groups? How valuable have they been, and what will their role be in the future?

BJ: At SDLC, we were grouped into “family groups” and we met every day to do the same activities we are doing here at Potomac, which is why we felt it would be a good idea to incorporate family groups at Potomac. They were highly valuable. Of course, people were hesitant to speak at first, but after one person did, the whole family group loosened up. The community leaders did a great job of facilitating and making it a no-judgment zone, so people like me could feel very comfortable sharing their experiences. My experience in family groups was where I found my voice at SDLC. Along with activities, we learned key terms and ideas that would serve us well in DEI work. We will continue to use family groups in the future, and we also plan to introduce affinity groups where you are grouped with people that identify with you. Family groups will continue to be the default, if you will, grouping that we will use to facilitate discussions. We will also keep the same family groups with the intent that you may build relationships, share experiences, and learn more about things and people you didn’t know before. We want family groups to have a very comfortable feel to them and make the DEI work as smooth as possible.

Andrea: During the conference, we had family groups that we met with for a few hours each morning before going to affinity meetings. In these affinity groups, we met a diverse group of people and had discussions, presentations, and activities. We got to know each other well so it became a very comfortable and collaborative environment. We wanted to do the same thing at Potomac, and so far it’s been pretty beneficial. Some groups are more talkative than others and we definitely need to meet more times in order to maximize open discussion. However, I am really happy with how they are going so far, and hopefully, they help people learn from each other. 

The Current: Given your experience at SDLC, what changes do you hope to see within the Potomac community with respect to DEI? 

BJ: I hope we can normalize the frequency of DEI work at Potomac. Until this year, we have not really had mandatory DEI work, as it was always just optional (and rare, at that). There is the annual conference at St. Andrews, and, of course, SDLC. Only a select few people are allowed to go to these. Also, it is usually the same people and not the people that need to have these conversations who attend these events. The school needs to normalize these conversations to the point that people are always open to having them. I also hope that we can stop referring to these conversations as “difficult” and “uncomfortable.” I feel like that turns people off from DEI work because they feel like it is too much of a challenge. However, it is really just fun and you are learning what you NEED to know in the future. We are lucky to be in a place where these conversations can be had, and I feel like we have all the resources to make it happen. DEI work is not as much of a chore as it is made out to be, and it needs to be looked at in a more fruitful manner.

Editor’s note: The St. Andrew’s conference, Diversity in the DMV, is, according to its website, a program designed to “[bring] together students and educators with a shared passion for diversity, equity, and inclusivity.” Each year a handful of Potomac students are given the opportunity to attend the conference. 

Mina: After seeing that a community could be so open and accepting, I saw a future that I hoped for for Potomac. I think some of the best ways to create this change are making DEI a normal thing for all grade levels and having conversations about different identifiers. I also think editing the curriculum in all of the divisions would be another key step.

Andrea: I hope to see more active participation in affinity spaces, open conversations where everyone feels comfortable to speak from the “I” perspective, and increased education in the curriculum, particularly about gender, sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, and ability. I also hope that with increased student motivation we can hold the administration accountable for making meaningful changes and call out performative school events and messaging. Overall, we hope that these activities will be as transformative for the Potomac community as SDLC was for us.