EDISON, NJ-- The Wardlaw+Hartridge School in Edison held its Upper School Symposium – “Inclusive Communities: Race and Identity” on April 14. The event provided students with a valuable experience addressing a critical topic and featured two keynote speakers and included presentations, workshops and breakout discussions moderated by an impressive group of guests.

The Symposium program stated: With this symposium we acknowledge the significant barriers and historic inequities continuing to face members of racial and cultural minorities within the United States and around the world. Through celebrating our diversity and differing experiences we aim to strengthen our school and deepen our connections.

Danielle Belton, newly appointed editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, delivered the morning keynote virtually in the Berry Performing Arts Center. Ms. Belton’s address – “Be Proud of Who You Are” – encouraged students to love themselves and be themselves. She began her life story by reflecting on some difficult childhood experiences and how she refused to change to fit in and satisfy others. Ms. Belton maintained her core personality and continued on her path to success. She emphasized “belief in self” as a powerful tool in helping people achieve and create their dreams.

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Imam Khalid Latif, a W+H graduate from the Class of 2000 who is the chaplain at New York University, appeared in person to share the afternoon keynote –  "When Hate Wins, We All Lose: Our Role In Breaking Down The Roots Of Racism." Iman Latif provided historical context, shared details of his successful professional journey and the many ways he has often encountered racism as a Muslim. He shared his connection as a W+H alumnus to bond with the students, whom he encouraged to take action and be a part of the solution in dismantling racism.

Breakout sessions were moderated by Mr. Zduy Chu (Cultural Competence), Dr. Shekinah Fashaw-Walters (Black Lives Matter Less: Race, Place, & Health), Mr. Kerel Cooper (Professional Development and Growth – Moving Through The Ranks), Ms. Gaby Acosta (What Makes a Good Ally? Establishing Ground Rules for a Supportive Community), Dr. Sahar Aziz and Ms. Habibah Johnson (Islamophobia: Present Day Impact and Solutions) and Mr. Alvin Gilmore (Continuing Conversations About Race).

Cultural Competency is more than keywords in situations and more than making sure you are inclusive; it's the capability to accurately understand and adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonality. In this session, students explored how to create space that allows them and others to show up as their true selves while diving deeper into the lens through which individuals see the world. 

In Black Lives Matter Less: Race, Place and Health, students began with a conversation around what race is and the three levels of racism. Groups also discussed how we see racism manifested in our everyday lives from the communities we live into our experiences with law enforcement, and even more interestingly, engaged in a discussion of how these manifestations of racism impact our everyday health. 

Mr. Cooper, the co-founder and co-host of the “Minority Report” Podcast, which highlights people of color, women and LGBTQ+ communities within business, media, and technology, discussed navigating his 20+ years of professional experience and growing a career as a person of color in the media industry. 

In Ms. Acosta’s session, students created a shared language around allyship in action and defined how they can step up as allies in a variety of situations and pledge to stand up for one another. 

In the continuing conversations session with Mr. Gilmore, students submitted questions about race and identity, and enjoyed the opportunity to exchange ideas with Mr. Gilmore and peers in a smaller group.

“As I reflect back upon the day, I think the most valuable aspect of our day was the opportunity our students had to learn from a variety of voices and experiences.  Danielle Belton and Imam Khalid Latif left an indelible impression on our school community with their impactful words about being true to yourself and the importance of words and acceptance. Our breakout speakers allowed our students to explore aspects of race, identity, allyship and community that were of interest to them,” said Mrs. Nicole Nolan, Director of Global Scholars and Community Outreach who chaired the Symposium Committee. 

“However, the voices of our senior panel at the end of the day brought the experiences and feelings of our own students to center stage.  They have collectively helped to establish a foundation for our community to build upon and, hopefully, will encourage their younger peers to continue to speak truth to power for the overall benefit and success of all of the students who walk the halls of W+H,” Mrs. Nolan added. 

Co-chairs Neil Shah of Edison and Taliyah Williams of Rahway were instrumental in running the event from start to finish. Others who made key contributions on the committee included seniors Anna Razvi of Somerset, Mikayla Cole of Plainfield and John Papetti III of Elizabeth, and faculty members Mr. Kyle Modes, Ms. Jean Castellano, Mr. Jason Murphy and Dr. Deb Clifford. 

“I think the most valuable aspect of symposium day was the diverse array of guest speakers that dedicated their time to educate us. Being able to hear from experts in a variety of fields and finding ways in which each and every one of us can employ our unique skills, knowledge, and interests to help tackle racism, both within the context of our school community and beyond, was certainly a privilege,” Neil said. “The most rewarding experience was undoubtedly the student panel that we concluded the day with. The honest, unfiltered descriptions of personal experiences with racism as well as ways in which students would like to see all that we have learned be put into action was powerful, and are a testimony to the success of a long year of anti-racism introspection and education. I hope that today will have inspired students to find their own way to become active anti-racists and to find their own piece of the puzzle so that they can deconstruct harmful ideologies and systems in their own communities and across this country.”

“I hope that the symposium can be the catalyst that moves our school community into a future that is more diverse, equitable, and inclusive,” Taliyah added. “Most of all, I hope that the symposium lets our community know that we no longer have to be afraid of talking about race and identity. Shying away from these conversations are more detrimental than not, and allow for racism and prejudice to continue to plague our communities. After nearly a year of educating about race and identity, diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is now time for members of our community to take matters into their own hands and see what they can do.”

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.