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Pursuing Inclusive Excellence: St. Luke’s Equity Leadership Conference

By Jaci Nelson, Director of Equity & Inclusion
“We have to show up for the miracle to happen.” 
A colleague shared the above words of wisdom during St. Luke’s second annual Equity Leadership Conference (ELC). This one-day event brings together St. Luke’s students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and the Board of Trustees with one goal in mind: To foster genuine curiosity, dialogue, empathy, and greater equity at St. Luke’s and beyond. 

The Conference at a Glance

More than 60 community members showed up for this year’s ELC. The theme Checking Our Moral Compass: Empathy and Perspective-Taking at St. Luke’s, included discussion of the benefits and challenges of equity and inclusion at St. Luke’s, in our local community, and beyond.

The conference opened with remarks from Head of School Mark Davis, who reminded us of the importance and complexity of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts. To amplify the conference’s theme, we shifted into storytelling mode when St. Luke’s Board Chair Jennifer Foster, Mark, and I offered personal anecdotes that highlighted the different ways we each expand our understanding of others through self-reflection, vulnerability, and perspective-taking. 

Adult participants were then divided into discussion groups by constituency (parents, faculty and staff, alumni, and trustees) to explore the following questions: 
  • What does “moral compass” mean to you? What does it require? Why does it matter?
  • As members of St. Luke's School, we all have a shared responsibility to help create a more inclusive community. What is one thing you can do when you leave here to promote inclusion and develop greater empathy or to expand your perspective?
  • From your perspective, what is one diversity, equity, and inclusion priority St. Luke’s should take action on? Why?
Through the Eyes of Students

While the adult breakout groups met, Middle and Upper School students spent the morning in their own respective groups, where they shared and discussed their ideas about how the St. Luke’s community could be more understanding and inclusive of different students, including their experiences and needs. In keeping with the Pollyanna intra-conference format, students were intentionally separated from adults for this portion of the event, with the sole purpose of encouraging candor and peer-to-peer connection. With the support of our Middle School faculty and Upper School student leaders, the students engaged in their own storytelling and solutions-driven conversations in preparation for the full community debrief portion of the conference. 

Coming Together to Reflect

After a short break, all the conference participants gathered to hear thoughts and takeaways from the other groups. Adult groups briefly shared their most crucial takeaways before turning over the program to the students. As expected, the students proved to be the conference’s most candid and powerful speakers. Not only did the students model courage and vulnerability, but they also “brought their own wisdom,” as Mark Davis pointed out, for all participants to reflect upon. 

The students reminded us that we must intentionally make space and give space for connection and sharing; that it's far too easy to reinforce sameness, which only heightens discomfort across lines of difference; and that vulnerability requires trust. They went on to say that “vulnerability takes practice” and “is a gift to receive,” especially in a high-pressure, competitive, performance-driven community and culture. They identified mental health as a key area of focus for the St. Luke’s community, noting how important it is for adults to help reduce stigma and judgment by naming that “It’s okay not to be okay.” The students who spoke on behalf of their peers essentially offered a “call-in” for the adult participants, inviting us to “give permission to students to better reflect” on their identity, their community, and their impact on others.

As I continue to reflect on the ELC, I am grateful for those who are willing to tackle some of the more persistent, challenging, and, at times, uncomfortable issues inherent to our pursuit of inclusive excellence and belonging. 

Here are a few more insights and takeaways from this year’s conference attendees:
  • The “moral compass” concept is complicated because it means different things to different people, which begs the question: Can we each be looking in slightly different directions and still move forward collectively?
  • Asking people in our community to consider multiple perspectives and practice vulnerability requires trust. To build trust, we need to interact with each other in genuine and meaningful ways.
  • One way we can promote inclusion and belonging is by taking the time to introduce ourselves to people we don’t know and building more intentional connections.
  • St. Luke’s must be persistently creative in its efforts to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, especially as we develop a pipeline of students, faculty, and staff who represent a broad range of human differences. Having a more diverse community enables us to have a more thoughtful exchange of perspectives.
As we continue to make progress toward our shared endeavor, I will carry with me the inspirational words from my colleague. I can't think of a more important and doable step than "showing up" for one another. That alone can create a miraculous ripple effect. 
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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 30 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.