Even though it’s a small school, the Mirman Community can feel like a big place. With students hailing from 57 different zip codes and a student body that shows 35% of students representing cultural and ethnic diversity, there are numerous perspectives and experiences to be found on campus. But for a group of six Upper School 4 Seniors, the world grew a great deal when they journeyed to Atlanta, Ga. for the National Association of Independent Schools Student Diversity Leadership Conference at the tail end of 2016.
“I wasn’t quite sure what it would be like,” said Greta Z., one of the cohort of students that was nominated to attend the conference and sit on Mirman’s Student Diversity Leadership Council (SDLC). “I think I was excited to learn about things that I hadn’t known about before. I consider myself pretty aware of the topics going on in today’s social and political climate. But I was excited to hear it from some people who were more affected by what’s happening.”
Greta went to Atlanta alongside with her classmates Alec A., Diba A., Jake F., Abby K., and Will L. There with 1,600 students from around the country, they spent two days exploring perspectives and topics related to diversity, social identifiers, inclusivity, and equity. Both the students and their advisors — School Psychologist Dena Scott, Director of Inclusivity and Equity Connie Chiu, and 4L Teacher Julie Leavitt — all spoke of the open and welcoming environment of the community at the conference.
“I think the fact that we were able to achieve a safe and accepting community with that many people and that the universal understanding unspoken rule was that everyone’s perspective would be considered and everyone would feel welcomed and accepted,” said Greta, reflecting on her experience.
Bringing the experience back to Mirman
Classmate Abby echoed Greta’s sentiments, saying that she was impressed by the diversity of experiences, even among students with whom she shared a similar background. Abby said that she felt generally more attuned to awareness around the issues raised in SDLC and at the conference, given that she comes from a blended family and is biracial (her mother is Chinese, her father is white). Even so, the knowledge she brought back from the conference has stayed with her, inspiring her to share what she’s learned with her peer group.
“My friends were kind of shocked as to how I was changed or more attentive towards these topics, which I love. I love that I’m more aware of it and I’m more informed upon it,” she said. “The goal of SDLC is to come back and bring this knowledge to Mirman. As a grade, because there were six of us Seniors going, we were able to share that in our classes. In our English class and Advisory, we have had these discussions after we returned.”
Sparking this kind of conversation back on campus is part of what faculty and staff intended when they brought SDLC to life at Mirman. Dr. Scott explained that while the school has been sending students to the national conference over the past decade, it was only last year that the Mirman SDLC was formed. Students are selected through a nomination process involving the Upper School faculty.
“Mirman’s strategic plan through 2018 outlines an institutional commitment to inclusivity work,” said Ms. Chiu. “This lines up with the fact that we wanted to have more student leadership and voices involved in this work.”
For the students, the experience of being involved with SDLC has been as rewarding as the conference itself.
"It’s important because it helps keep me aware of what is happening around the world. And it gives me - as a white person I won’t know how minority groups or people of color feel - so it gives me perspective on their world so I can work towards being a better ally to them in their struggles," said Greta.
Abby added that, having been here since Kindergarten, she has seen the Mirman community change to a more inclusive place. "It's really been stressed to us that we're a community, and it brings us all together more," she said. "It’s important to hear other people and what their background is, where they come from, what made them the person they are today. I think it maybe broadens my perspective and it widens my eyes that it’s not just me out there. And when you move on from Mirman into the larger world, that’s what is there and it’s good for them to reflect upon that."
Coming up: Peace and Social Justice Day
The Mirman SDLC meets weekly starting in the fall, going through the conference, and culminating in the spring with an all-campus event: Peace and Social Justice Day on May 17. The day is entirely student-led, with traditional instruction giving way to various workshops and learning opportunities, all driven by the SDLC students. Much of the meeting time post-conference is devoted to planning and preparing for this day.
“Now that students have brought back skills from the conference and have spent their first semester having discussions around topics such as racism, media literacy, and gender identity, we spend the second semester preparing for Peace and Social Justice Day, which is the big event where they can bring their experience to the wider Mirman community,” said Ms. Chiu.
But Peace and Social Justice Day isn’t the only way these students are being prepared to be leaders in their community. Ms. Leavitt, whose background is in women’s studies, said that she was interested in exploring possible connections for leadership and mentorship in the Lower School. “I’d love to be a faculty liaison to figure out how older students can help teach the younger students,” said Ms. Leavitt.
One such display of leadership happened this week in Room 5, where SDLC students were leading workshops focused on building empathy around the experience of immigration, helping the students “walk in the shoes” of immigrants from a variety of backgrounds.
“A lot of what we hear from the experience of our students is that these conversations should start earlier,” said Ms. Chiu. “And we’re working on internal mentorship pipelines where upper school students are working to become leaders and role models to Lower School students. And SDLC is one of the ways that we try to do that connection and also US SAC and LS SAC (Student Advisory Council). As a school, we tend to be split by division. So we're looking for opportunities where we can have the students from Upper School get involved with the Lower School and build that cross-divisional community.”