Sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, the Student Diversity Leadership Conference is a multiracial, multicultural gathering of high school student leaders from across the U.S. and abroad that focuses on self-reflecting, forming allies, and building community. Participating students develop cross-cultural communication skills, design effective strategies for social justice practice through dialogue and the arts, and learn the foundations of allyship and networking principles. Held in San Antonio, TX, with the theme “We the People: Leveraging Our Community to Preserve our Humanity,” the November 2022 conference included Merion Mercy Academy students Ti’Yan Driggins '23, Sylvia Barnes '23, Jonae Thomas '24, Lauren Lindsay '24, Autumn Drake '23, and Dani Pagan '23.
During Weekly Reset on January 26, 2023, MMA’s SDLC participants shared the experience with their classmates. Senior Sylvia Barnes noted that SDLC is ultimately about “coming together to make the world a better place, and supporting each other.” Sylvia added “I learned a valuable lesson about leadership, and got a reminder to keep on going.”
What follows are Sylvia's reflections on the experience:
My experience with leadership is long and complicated. For years, I believed that leadership is linked to titles or positions; whether it meant president of this, or secretary of that. I also thought that leaders had to do everything themselves, and that leaders are the loudest voice in the room. My own perception of who I am has been largely shaped by my leadership roles. Historically, I’ve found myself taking on everything, because I believe that's what leaders should do. However, SDLC always reminds me that leadership is not a position or taking on everything. True leadership is empowering others. It is reminding others of their own potential, and encouraging them to keep on trying. Looking back, the greatest leadership role I’ve ever held is the one that wasn't official; the one where I helped a group of people realize their potential while coming into my own. SDLC reminds student leaders of this. A lot of diversity work and leadership doesn't come with the recognition of more prominent positions. Our work occurs behind the scenes. But this behind the scenes work is integral to recognizing the dignity of all people, especially those who have been marginalized.
And with that, I’d like to talk about my second point: a reminder to keep on going. I’ve been involved in diversity work since eighth grade. It’s been an integral part of my life journey, and is something I am proud of. At times though, this work is exhausting. In four years, I’ve won many battles, but I’ve also lost a lot. In many ways, each fight I lose feels like I'm losing a piece of myself, or that I’m failing others. After everything, it can feel impossible to move forward.
But move forward we must.
SDLC reminds me every year that I don't need the strength to complete the journey, I just need the strength to get to the next step. Everything I fight for, every move I make, every breath I take pushes me forward. Even if I don’t succeed right away, I am paving the way for others to succeed. I am creating new paths and roads for the future. I must keep on going, not just for myself, but for the others that come after me.
So, what do I want you all to take away from this?
I want all of you to remember that you don't have to be an official leader to make an impact, that failure is not the end of the road. I want you all to push yourselves to keep on going, even when everything seems impossible. I want you all to keep fighting for a better world, a world we can be proud of.
Following Sylvia's reflections, Junior Lauren Lindsay presented a group activity that the SLDC participants prepared for their fellow students. The goal, she explained, was for MMA’s “diverse community with diverse opinions to have the opportunity to express differences of opinion in a safe space.”
Different stations were set up around the gym where students could choose to reflect their opinion—agree, disagree, somewhere in the middle—on a given question. Questions posed included:
Do you think social media is ruining modern society?
Should the voting age be reduced to 16?
Should students be allowed to take mental health days as leaves from school?
Is it possible to be too young to have conversations about race, class, gender, and sexuality?
Lauren concluded the Reset with this:
“Everyday we are living our lives from the ‘I’ perspective. SDLC helped us to focus on what ‘I can do’ as an individual that can contribute to our community.”