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With just three fill-in-the-blank sentences and 10 minutes, poet Starr Seward equipped an auditorium full of teenagers with the tools to write moving verses of self-expression and empowerment. The theme? You are like a glacier. Only 10 percent of your true self is visible to the naked eye.
"When people see me, they say _______. ... If you really knew me, you would know _______. ... One day, they will say _______," Seward prompted, as the Triangle Diversity Alliance Conference wound to a close in Durham Academy's Kenan Auditorium on Oct. 7.
The theme of the exercise — the perception of others and expression of one's identity, through the lens of race, sexuality, gender and other forms of diversity — reverberated throughout the day as 182 middle and high school students and faculty from DA, Carolina Friends School, Cary Academy, Charlotte Country Day School, Ravenscroft School and Saint Mary's School gathered for the annual conference. This year's event was themed "Media Remixed," with featured speakers focusing on stereotypes surrounding the portrayal of black, Latino, Asian and LGBTQ culture in mainstream media. Students also had the opportunity to turn that lens on their own independent school community, and were encouraged to take charge of their own personal narratives.
DA senior Justin Warren appreciated the opportunity to talk with people with whom he relates and shares experiences, as an African American.
"It was productive," he said. "I found ways to address issues that sometimes come up here at school. I learned how to communicate with people who are different from you or who don't necessarily agree with you."
Highlighting the conference was a roster of speakers including Durham Mayor Bill Bell, N.C. State University professor and dean Dr. Blair Kelley, Duke University professor Dr. Mark Anthony Neal and Seward.
Equally powerful, said several students like Warren, was the opportunity to dive deep into diversity issues during breakout sessions like "A Culture of Stereotypes" and "It's OK to be You — LGBTQ," and “Our Voices: Are they Being Heard?” during affinity group discussions. Each affinity group made a list of areas of concern for their particular group —"Compromising identity to please others in society," for example — and a list of what they would like others to know — such as "We are not monolithic."
"The conference today provided a platform for students and faculty from DA and area independent schools to engage in meaningful dialogue about identify and social equity," said Kemi Nonez's DA's director of diversity and multicultural affairs. "Students left the conference energized to continue the conversations that were being had and ways towards becoming change agents."
Neal, a professor of black popular culture in Duke's Department of African and African-American Studies, used his keynote address to examine the underrepresentation and negative portrayal of black men and boys in American culture.
"The media doesn't often show images of regular black men. I'm not talking about celebrities or criminals — just regular, working people," Neal said after screening commercials showing rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z and basketball superstar LeBron James in a positive light and "humanized" aside from their vocations.
"On the back end of these kinds of success stories, we are hit with reality," he said, projecting an image of a young African-American man with his hands held up as multiple police officers in riot gear point machine guns in his face. "Many folks who don't have that [celebrity] lifestyle have real concerns about their safety in society."
Kelley — a DA parent who is Assistant Dean for Interdisciplinary Studies and International Programs at N.C. State's College of Humanities and Social Sciences — has focused her research on the history of African American resistance to segregation.
DA senior Breanna Byrd said she was grateful for a piece of advice offered by the scholar: to be proud of differences, as "diverse voices are needed in media to reflect the full range of humanity."
"Differences don't inhibit your art, but make it stronger," Byrd, who regularly competes in spoken word poetry competitions, said after the conference.
In addition to celebrating one's own differences, it's important to acknowledge and celebrate the differences of others, Kelley said.
"I'm perfectly happy being black. I'm proud of being black," she said. "Being colorblind is a deficiency."