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Takeaways from St. Luke’s Equity Leadership Conference

Jaci Nelson, St. Luke's Director of Equity & Inclusion, shares key moments and takeaways from the Equity Leadership Conference—a new St. Luke’s tradition.

As St. Luke’s newest Director of Equity and Inclusion, I am charged with “enhancing a climate of equity and inclusion for all members of the school community and fostering a school environment equally conducive to the well-being and success of all members.” And I am of the firm belief that this is the “job of one, but the work of many.” In thinking about how the St. Luke’s community might work together to foster a climate of inclusivity, it is important to start with “perspective-taking” and “perspective-giving” to better understand one another and the diverse needs of our community.

“It’s one thing to be heard and another thing to be understood and appreciated.” These wise words were spoken by St. Luke’s senior Zaire Profit ‘21 at the very first Equity Leadership Conference

An opportunity to virtually gather every constituency of the St. Luke’s school community, the inaugural Equity Leadership Conference, with partner Pollyanna, created a unique platform to exchange our individual perspectives and shared Hilltop experiences. Themed Enter to Learn: Co-Creating an Inclusive Community that Serves Us All, the ELC offered 160-plus attendees the chance to consider what it means to feel welcomed at St. Luke’s and what, if anything, challenges our sense of belonging. 


Starting with opening remarks from Head of School Mark Davis, the conference took place on Zoom, where attendees were encouraged to enter prepared to listen closely and seek to understand one another. Participants were inspired by the wise words of Ruth Bader Ginsberg who stated simply, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” And the ELC was one such step toward inclusive cultural change. The alumni retrospective video that followed highlighted the impact of assumptions and privilege, as well as the importance of relationships and resilience, with regard to inclusion and belonging at St. Luke’s. Stories told by alumni also called our attention to the fact that no two students, regardless of their similarities, will have the same experience at St. Luke’s, and individuality matters. 
With the alumni retrospective serving as an example of the power of storytelling, attendees were asked to focus on really listening to the people in our community and consider diverse points of view. As expected, St. Luke’s students rose to the occasion. At the close of the student experience, I witnessed Middle and Upper School students expressing gratitude to one another for their willingness to be open-minded, reflect, re-think with humility, and embrace vulnerability. From where I sat, the student participants at the ELC modeled for the adults what it means to “enter to learn.” 

After a short break, we gathered again as a community for a debrief with each of the constituent groups. 

We heard from the trustee group that we need the St. Luke’s community to consider an expanded definition of “diversity,” one that captures both visible and obscure differences. 

The alumni group identified and named the “paradox of niceness” — the unaddressed issues beneath the surface of positive experiences. This group also expressed the value of having a widely diverse faculty who reflect the student body and inevitably contribute to a student’s sense of belonging. 

Both trustees and alumni recognized that issues of inclusion are challenging and extend well beyond the Hilltop. This is all the more reason to start leaning into uncomfortable and challenging topics at St. Luke’s. 

The faculty and staff constituent group doubled-down on the topic of “niceness” and the importance of adults to provide representative mirrors for students and one another. 

From the parent group, we heard a variation on some of the same themes, including the importance of carefully considering family pairings, group dynamics, and geography when planning social events.

The highlights offered from each constituent group were a reminder to get curious about “both/and” dynamics. For instance, “niceness as a double edge sword” — a means to both foster belonging and mask the need for courageous conversations. Or the need to consider both our similarities and our differences as a function of inclusion at St. Luke’s. 

Next, we heard from our Middle and Upper School panelists who reflected on 1) why it can be difficult to talk about differences, 2) what they wished the SLS community talked about more, and 3) what we can do to make school feel more inclusive. These students highlighted the need to move from conversations about equity and inclusion to meaningful actions, as outlined in St. Luke’s Vision for Inclusive Excellence. 

For example:
  • Don’t limit learning and new knowledge to abstract concepts; apply lessons to current events or contexts; history needs to be contextualized in the current reality.
  • Stretch out of your comfort zone; sit with different kids to get to know them.
  • When teaching about cultures outside of the “mainstream” or majority group, be sure to include stories that empower, not just stories of oppression.
  • Educate yourself about different points of view.
  • Embed Diversity, Equity & Inclusion into the curriculum beyond superficial acknowledgment.
  • Refine book choices, service requirements vs. built into core curriculum, connect beyond SLS- get students in different communities, address mental health
  • Start age-appropriate conversations in MS to effectively prepare students for real-life navigation of sensitive issues.
  • Move from external motivations (e.g., requirements for graduation) to encourage intrinsic motivation (e.g., personal interest).
  • Don’t be complacent.
Finally, to close out the conference, all were invited to share lingering thoughts and reflections. More constructive ideas were shared, including the importance of adults modeling honesty and vulnerability; forming genuine connections with inspiring adults; celebrating diversity; starting early to support all students with an expanded definition of diversity, and ensuring accountability to address issues consistently. While no one could have known exactly how the Equity Leadership Conference would unfold, one thing is for sure, we have a new inclusive school tradition in the making — one that serves us all. 


For Students - Consider joining clubs or applying for groups to continue the conversation (e.g., MS Anti-Racist Club or MS DLC, US DLC, US Students Towards Anti-Racist Transformation, or Gay-Straight Alliance).

For Faculty/Staff - Join the WE ARE or PoC affinity conversations and learn more about the initiatives developing out of the E&I Office and Equity Leadership Team.
For Parents - Participate in the Parents’ Association and MOSAIC events to connect with other families. 
If you identify as white, you are invited to join the SLS Racial Equity Parent Group, started by Karen Stamoulis and Liz Perry following Robin DiAngelo’s talk last spring. This group meets monthly via Zoom and is a “brave space” for parents who identify as white and want to become active allies for people of color. By reflecting on white racial identity, this group is focused on becoming more skilled at talking about race and racism and practicing the skills of disrupting racism. This is an allyship group, which is different from an affinity space (you can read more about affinity groups at St. Luke's here). The next meeting is on Wednesday, February 17, at 7:00pm. Email Liz Perry at perrye@stlukesct.org if you would like more information. 
For Alumni - Contact Stefanie Veneruso to learn more about groups being formed out of the Alumni Office, including the new Community Experience initiatives and SLS Connect Alumni Group.

For Trustees - Stay actively involved in the conversation and work closely with the Equity and Inclusion Committee.
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St. Luke’s School is a secular (non-religious), private school in New Canaan, CT for grades 5 through 12 serving over 35 towns in Connecticut and New York. Our exceptional academics and diverse co-educational community foster students’ intellectual and ethical development and prepare them for top colleges. St. Luke’s Center for Leadership builds the commitment to serve and the confidence to lead.