EDISON, NJ-- Four Upper School students from The Wardlaw+Hartridge School in Edison participated in The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Student Diversity Leadership Conference earlier this month.

The NAIS Online Student Diversity Leadership Conference is 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. Led by a diverse team of trained adult and peer facilitators, 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. In addition to large group sessions, SDLC "family groups" and "home groups" allow for dialogue and sharing in smaller units.

Neil Shah of Edison, Taliyah Williams of Rahway, Annie Gu of Edison and Sydney Racine of Piscataway enjoyed the opportunity to connect with peers. The SDLC proved to be a valuable experience for all.

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“What I found most valuable about the conference was the atmosphere of communal trust, understanding and respect that permeated every aspect of our daily activities,” Neil said. “This atmosphere allowed everyone who participated, including myself, to open up to people and discuss the uncomfortable realities of many different forms of discrimination that students have faced. The trust we had in the students around us, all of whom were strangers, to maintain confidentiality and to support one another through these difficult conversations made the SDLC a powerful, memorable experience.”

“My most valuable takeaway is the confidence the conference left in me over the course of the week,” Taliyah added. “I often feel powerless, however, having experienced the conference, I now know that I am capable of creating change in our community that will benefit both me and W+H students for years to come. I was also given the space to reflect and criticize myself and our school community in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

“For me, the most valuable part of the conference was getting to meet so many different teenagers also in independent schools. It was great to discuss different issues from varying perspectives and using this information to try to pose a solution. I learned a lot about practices that we could implement in Wardlaw+Hartridge to promote tolerance, as well as practices that have not been as effective. It was a great conference that taught me a lot about the issues at hand in this country,” Annie said.

“I learned that silence is unacceptable. Before I felt that if I spoke up about something I would be seen as confrontational and problematic, however this conference taught me to not think this way and how to speak up and make changes to my community,” Sydney said. 

As large "family" groups, students learned terminology and inclusive language that are easy words to learn that could make a world of difference in the feelings of inclusion and belonging for others. They also discussed concrete strategies to introduce more inclusivity pertaining to all sorts of identities, including race, religion, socioeconomic status, gender identity or sexual orientation, into school communities. 

“I learned from students who attend predominantly white institutions about the pushback they have faced in their communities when trying to be recognized, and I gained an insight into the student-administration dynamic at many schools that causes an ideological divide rather than an agreement that would be conducive to a positive learning environment for all,” Neil said. “We also discussed matters of representation, implicit biases, systemic inequities, and how many aspects of discrimination have been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic this year.”

Although it was a virtual event, the W+H students are grateful for the opportunity to participate and look forward to implementing changes in the community.

“I feel very lucky to have attended the SDLC and appreciate all of the people involved in making the student experience memorable, even over Zoom,” Taliyah said.

The Wardlaw+Hartridge School (1295 Inman Ave., N. Edison) is Central Jersey’s premier PreK-12 independent school. The campus is located near the Scotch Plains border and just five miles from downtown Westfield. It is a private, nonsectarian, coeducational day school that prepares students to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection. Wardlaw+Hartridge provides an educational atmosphere characterized by academic challenge, support for individual excellence, diversity, and a familial sense of community. To take a virtual tour of the school, visit www.whschool.org/admission/take-a-virtual-tour.