Living in a Shared World: The People of Color Conference

Jennifer D. Klein
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world…
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.
–Naomi Shihab Nye

Each December, I beg, borrow and coerce my way back into the People of Color Conference, no matter what the personal cost.  While most conferences feed the brain, the PoCC, run by the National Association of Independent Schools, feeds the soul.  It gives me three days each year when I get to live in the world I work so hard to create the other 362 days of the year, the world I often fear is impossible to build and struggle so hard to envision: the shared world.

Inside the PoCC, people connect across boundaries of race, ethnicity, geography and every other facet of identity.  Inside the PoCC, people smile and laugh together on a journey we’ve chosen to share.  In this space, we ask hard questions and lean into our discomfort instead of avoiding the most important conversations.  When we go back into our real lives, it’s like the worst international re-entry we’ve ever experienced.  But for these three days each December, we get to reconnect with our common mission to support the needs of students and educators of color in independent schools, to recharge our common belief in a shared world beyond the walls of the PoCC, and to unite in our collective efforts to make our schools and broader communities just as open, authentic and unapologetic.

I always attend the international affinity group at the PoCC, and a common theme emerges every year: only in United States have any of my international colleagues ever felt “othered.”  The message is consistent–they never thought of themselves as “people of color” before this country gave them that message and told them which bubble to fill in on visa applications and green cards.  While conflict exists the world over, the level of division, confusion and discomfort caused by identity politics is oddly and uniquely American.

As a citizen of the world born in the United States, I experienced this outside the U.S. more than inside, but growing up as a visible minority gave me layers of empathy and understanding long before I moved to Central America in my mid 20s (see my blog, “Portrait of an Outsider: Lamentations on Growing Up Jewish in the American Melting Pot,” for a satirical glimpse into my childhood).  When we sit together at the PoCC, my colleagues and I don’t see ourselves as a myriad of races; we are a tapestry of cultures and nationalities, defined more by where we come from than the color of our skin.  We ask important questions, connect across our differences, and always discover more that connects us than separates us.  I am grateful for the time I spend in the presence of such wonderful educators, as it recharges my batteries each December and gives me the fuel I need to continue this difficult work.

The highlights at the PoCC this year were many.  Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz stirred us up by challenging the current accreditation model of education in the U.S., encouraging us to strive instead for a transformative educational mindset.  He admitted his nerd-dom and talked about the scene where Gandalf falls into the chasm in Lord of the Rings, telling us we need to “fight the whole way down” in the work of improving education, dialogue and inclusivity in our schools.  He told us that what makes art important isn’t that it gives creative thinkers a career path, but that it allows them to engage with the world.  He cussed like a madman and brought us honest, authentic nuggets of gold–and once he was finished with his fabulous rant, he offered us a five-minute reading from his new collection of stories, “This is How You Lose Her.”

In what was unquestionably the dirtiest, most raw and authentic reading I’ve seen since Kathy Acker in grad school, poet Staceyann Chinmay may have reshaped the PoCC permanently–and I hope no one gets fired for having the audacity to bring her to the event.  Whether standing mid-aisle reading childhood love letters, or up on a chair recreating a pastor’s sermon and the moment, at 9 years old, when she first discovered her own body, squatted over a pit toilet in her childhood home of Jamaica, Staceyann’s reading from the memoir “The Other Side of Paradise” was one of the funniest and most freeing experiences I’ve ever had at the PoCC.  We laughed, we squirmed with discomfort, and we fell to pieces together when one brave woman shouted an unapologetic “Amen!” to the image of Staceyann’s first urge to touch herself–right before she slipped and fell into the pit toilet.  And I’ll always remember her remark about motherhood, which resonates so much for educators, that we grow up feeling our hearts are in our chests, and then suddenly they’re wandering into traffic inside our children.

The highlights are so many I could go on for pages–I hope that colleagues, students and friends from the PoCC and Student Diversity Leadership Conference (the student strand of this event) will add favorite moments as comments below.  Only at the PoCC would we see heads of color embracing each other with tears in public support of a colleague’s first headship; only at the PoCC would we weep together over the death of Nelson Mandela with so much love and appreciation in our collective heart.  Only at the PoCC would every single tweet have so much insight and solidarity behind it (search by #pocc13 and #pocc2013).

In Buddhist practice, we grapple with how to bring our meditative calm “off the mat and into the real world.”  While Buddhist monks and nuns can easily maintain their peaceful state inside the monastery, the majority of Buddhists have to find ways to maintain that state within the chaos of their daily lives.  Like Buddhists, those of us who are transformed by the PoCC have to find ways to bring our learning and sense of connectedness back to our classrooms, schools, communities and families.  Like international travelers, we have to find ways to express our experiences to the people around us, so that we can create ripples of insight and change in our broader communities.

As transgender activist Marisa Richmond pointed out, we need to support legislative bills which strive to ensure the rights and safety of every single child, turning inclusivity into a matter of U.S. policy.  And as National Public Radio’s Michele Martin told us in the closing, we have to talk most with those who disagree with us, learn to listen to the opposition, distinguish between opinions (which vary) and facts (which don’t), and stay in the conversation no matter how uncomfortable it becomes.  We have lived briefly in Naomi Shihab Nye’s shared world, and that privilege comes with the responsibility to make it real every day for every student–and for ourselves.

This can still happen anywhere.  Not everything is lost.

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