The Senior Council of the Student Diversity Leadership Club (SDLC) at Sewickley Academy, Pittsburgh’s oldest co-educational college-preparatory and independent day school, hosted the annual Learning for Equity, Acceptance, and Diversity (L.E.A.D.) Conference today, the first time in-person for the past three years due to the pandemic. Regular classes in the Senior School were postponed for the conference to allow students to participate in peer-led workshops and listen to a speaker and panelists centered around the theme of Liberation.
“Today is a chance to learn something you wouldn’t learn in a normal classroom setting,” said senior Madison Martin, one of the coordinators of the event, during the opening session. “It’s a day about learning, engaging with classmates, and getting to know people in other grades. I hope you learn something new today. You may not agree with everything, but keep in mind the viewpoints and experiences of others as you listen.”
Madison was joined by fellow Senior classmates Georgia Cox, Aizah Kamal, Desirae Nance, and AJ Wiles in coordinating the day’s activities, an endeavor they began working on in the summer of 2021. The school has been hosting L.E.A.D. conferences since 2018.
“As our Senior School students prepare for college and the world beyond the walls of Sewickley Academy, the L.E.A.D. Conference is an opportunity for all of our students to engage with and learn from each other,” said Derek Chimner, interim director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, who supported the SDLC in organizing the event along with the participation of numerous faculty and staff.
In addition to peer-led workshops in the Senior School, students from both the Senior and Middle schools listened to a presentation from keynote speaker, Devantae Butler. Butler is a leader in delivering inspirational messages to youth across the country. A graduate of Gateway High School in Pittsburgh’s Eastern suburbs, he founded the Reaching New Dreams and Recognizing Talents organization after a high school friend was killed by gun violence. For his presentation to the Sewickley Academy community, he touched on empathy, appreciation, and leadership, and he encouraged the students to recognize their individual powers and responsibilities to others and the future.
The afternoon consisted of the choice to meet with affinity groups centered on ethnicity and gender identities followed by a panel of local writers who spoke of their experiences of liberation through their writing. The award-winning panelists included author Marie Benedict, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed columnist Tony Norman, retired Sewickley Academy English teacher Anne Russell, and Sewickley Academy senior, AJ Wiles, a 2020 National Student Poet. The writers shared their backgrounds with the audience and responded to several questions including how liberation plays a part in their writing and how their identity influences what they write.
Along with participating on the writers’ panel, AJ adapted a community service session he had created for the National Student Poet Program to fit the audience and time frame for one of today’s workshops, “The Stories We Eat.” He focused on liberation through food and writing, stating, “Food is a universal theme. We all eat and share meals, and it gives us a common ground to share deeper stories.” He guided his workshop participants in creating short written pieces about their favorite foods.
Other workshop topics for the day covered a variety of passion projects for Academy students including Feminism, Black Lives Matter, Religious Rebellion, and Climate Change. Junior Laila Wade presented on Juneteenth. “I wanted to talk about something that people may know about but don’t know a lot about—something that needs more recognition,” she said. “I just learned about it a few years ago watching a show on Netflix, so this was an opportunity to teach myself more about it, too.” Laila also shared that her family now participates in annual Juneteenth celebrations.
Seniors Brendon Ohr and Gary Peng shared their enthusiasm for computer science in a workshop focused on Artificial Intelligence (AI). The young men felt this was a topic currently on the minds of many people. Their goal was to make AI no longer a buzzword but to improve understanding of its current limitations and future potential. Both students have taken every computer science class currently offered at Sewickley Academy and have been spending their senior year in independent study researching AI. They both plan to continue pursuing the field in college.
The topic of Queer Liberation in Fashion was presented by juniors Alex Cordle and Claire Cable. Alex, wearing a poofy, pink dress inspired by her favorite queer character, Villanelle on the TV show Killing Eve said, “Fashion is my first passion and has grown into looking at how we express our identities on a day-to-day basis through the clothes that we wear.”
She accessorized her outfit today with black combat boots and her great grandmother’s necklace. The pair of young women discussed how certain fashions came to be such as skirts/dresses and high heels originally designed for men, crop tops originated in football, and wrist watches were for women because they didn’t have pockets. Their discussion investigated the evolution of LGBTQ+ fashion from the late 1400s through the evolution of drag and into the more androgynous styles of the late 20th century. The group concluded with a discussion about the desire for stores to simply sell clothes and not designate sections for men and women.