“Enlightening,” “insightful,” and “inspiring” were just some of the words that 19 of Wheeler’s Upper School students used to describe their experiences at the 2021 Wheeler Student Diversity Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts in early December. The three-day event allowed sophomores, juniors, and seniors to explore issues of identity, diversity, equity, and leadership in a face-to-face setting – something that has been challenging for students in the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Princess Sirleaf Bomba, Director of Unity & Diversity, Rose Phildor, Student Support Coordinator, and Marc Harrison, Upper School Unity & Diversity Coordinator, organized the conference as a way to fill the void left when the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) Student Diversity Leadership Conference went virtual last year and decided to do so again this year.
The conference featured Wheeler’s own Head of Strategic Innovation Young Un and Michael C. Clifton ‘98, a professional airline pilot since 2007. Workshops focused on topics such as storytelling and social justice, understanding intercultural conflict resolution, and exploring cultural appropriation, among other issues. While school alumni led some of these workshops, Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqi and Providence City Councilman (and Wheeler Teacher) John Goncalves ‘09 also led an open-ended workshop focused on political activism and engagement.
Bomba said splitting the students into “family groups” was an effective way of creating more thoughtful discussions, partly because they avoided pairing students with friends or close peers.
“We were pleased because we saw them develop good friendships throughout the conference,” Bomba said. “The same goes for the adult leaders in each group.”
She said the conference provided a similar space for students to be “vulnerable, authentic, and accepted,” with a focus on learning as much about themselves as each workshop’s topic. The productive discussions on dealing with everything from problems with friendships, dealing with microaggressions, and being heard among their peers, led to some students encouraging others to apply next year.
“It was amazing, and I’m glad we took the chance on it,” Bomba said. “We’re so lucky that 19 amazing kids also expressed an interest and trusted us to come and be a part of something special.”