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Gunnery students and faculty attend national conference focused on diversity

Two Gunnery students and two faculty members were among 6,000 students and educators who attended the 2017 People of Color Conference (PoCC) and Student Diversity Leadership Conference  sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, November 30 through December 2 in Anaheim, California.
Layla Walcott ’19 and Daina Adams '18, who co-founded the Black Student Union at The Gunnery, were selected to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), which included student leaders in grades nine through 12 from more than 300 independent schools. The theme of this year’s SDLC was “Making our Voices Matter: Leading the March to Common Ground.”  

“We wanted to give our students a space to learn a little bit more about social justice on a personal level and bring it back to the school, rather than having it come from the teachers,” said Tim Poole, a member of the English department and LEADS program faculty who attended the conference with Mandarin teacher Tanya Nongera. Poole said it gave them an opportunity to be in an environment with other faculty of color to discuss topics such as what independent schools are doing around issues of race and social justice and what can change.

“Tim and I got so much out of it,” Nongera said, noting that she attended the conference with the intention of finding out what she could bring back to The Gunnery community to help make it more inclusive, and to learn more about the problems faced by students of color.

In addition to attending large group sessions, students at the conference were assigned to smaller “family groups,” which allowed for open dialogue and sharing. “We talked about what it is like to be a minority at your school,” Walcott said, adding “I’ve talked about that with my family but I’ve never really talked about it with a group like that.”

“I learned the most being in my affinity group which was based on my race. Being with people who felt the way I did was amazing,” Adams said.

Walcott said what she has learned, through her involvement in student organizations at The Gunnery and through her experience at the conference, is the importance of speaking up to educate others who “just don’t know” that what they are saying is stereotypical or biased based on race, gender or sexual orientation.

“I learned you don’t have to get angry, you just have to educate. You need to speak out against it, even if it’s uncomfortable,” Walcott said, noting that equality is not something that only impacts people of color. “Equal isn’t just a black and white thing.”

Adams said she participated in activities and discussions focusing on mental health and what other schools are doing to help students. For example, she said some students talked about a pajama day that was held to promote the importance of sleep, and others said their school brought in pet therapy dogs to interact with students prior to exams. Other discussions centered on racism, religion and what schools are doing to help transgender students.

“I learned that even though I thought The Gunnery was lacking in some aspects, we are doing much better compared to many other schools out there,” Adams said. “I think The Gunnery does well in talking about issues pertaining to race and social economic issues.”

Walcott said her history teachers at The Gunnery talk about black leaders and in Poole’s English class, they are reading James Baldwin, who Walcott, an aspiring writer, described as a role model.

“There are so many things in the world that need to be fixed but we don’t talk about that a lot here,” she said. However, she said The Gunnery “does a good job of making you feel welcome” and she sees an opportunity for the school to build on its unique history and become a leader in terms of diversity.

“I think it’s great that we had an abolitionist that started the school. I want everyone to feel like Fred Gunn did when he started The Gunnery. He let girls come. It’s open to everyone. There’s so many strides we can take to make this the best, most diverse school. Once you know what you want to do there’s nothing that can stop you,” Walcott said. “It’s trying to stop the stereotypes and making everyone feel comfortable and safe at the school.”

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Founded in 1850 by abolitionist, educator, and outdoorsman Frederick Gunn, The Gunnery is a coeducational college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9 through 12/post-graduate. Dedicated teacher-mentor-coaches challenge students to reach their full potential in a home-like setting where character and citizenship are valued as much as intellect and achievement. Individualized attention and high expectations help young learners develop not only the skills and confidence they will need in college, but also the moral compass and love of learning that will serve them well in life. The school attracts ambitious, academically curious students who will both shine as unique individuals and thrive as contributing members of a deeply connected community. By the time they graduate, Gunnery students have become well rounded, grounded young adults with a sharpened sense of who they are and who they want to become.