Sydnie Schwarz, Middle School DEI coordinator at Rivers, vividly remembers the first diversity conference she attended. “I was in eighth grade. I remember feeling like this world had opened up,” she says today. “Going to workshops, meeting kids from other schools—I was so excited.” It’s the kind of experience she hoped to bring to Rivers Middle School students by offering to have Rivers host the AISNE Middle School Students of Color Conference earlier this month.
The conference took place online, but hosting duties meant organizing a day’s worth of activities, from workshops to affinity groups to a keynote address to a final dance party and trivia contest. Schwarz partnered with Kristin Bedard from AISNE to plan the event, down to the details of creating questions and answers about social justice for the trivia competition. But as a conference veteran who served at the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference for several years (including virtually this year), she felt confident taking it on. “I’m a big conference person,” Schwarz says. “They said they needed a host for the middle school conference, and I was pretty certain I could do it in the virtual space.”
As is so often the case, a virtual conference offered a few advantages over a live event. “We didn’t have to worry about capacity,” says Schwarz. “We didn’t have to say only 30 people could be in a workshop.” Almost six hundred people registered for the conference, and even at the end of a long day, with Zoom fatigue threatening, some 300 students stayed for the dance party.
Rivers faculty played a prominent role, with several members leading workshops and affinity groups. Melissa Dolan partnered with Julia Favorito to offer the workshop “Celebrating The Contributions of LGBTQ+ People of Color in American Culture” and with Sarah Freeman to offer “Activism in Athletics.” Sarah Cohen, Emily Poland, and Jeff Baker led workshops about white allyship and environmental justice. John Bower co-facilitated the trans-racial adoptee affinity group, and Rivers Upper School students Adebiyi Oyaronbi ’21, Talia Davis ’21, and Lucy Ton That ’22 also facilitated workshops and affinity groups.
Middle school teachers Cathy Favreau (Latin) and Chris Love (art) teamed up to lead a session titled “The Art of Protest.” They first walked the students through the history and iconography of protest art, sharing images of classic Vietnam war posters, Black Lives Matter signs, Keith Haring works, graffiti, and more. Then, in the second half of the session, students went into breakout rooms where, says Favreau, “We challenged them to make their own images and slogans on topics that were important to them.” Afterward, the images were posted on a Padlet for all to share. Both teachers said that they only wished that the workshop could have been longer, to give students more time to create. “But,” says Love, “they came up with some really strong stuff.”
Later, Love also helped present a workshop on identity-related mask making, along with Chelsea Yan ’25. “That worked out really well,” says Love, as Yan took the lead. “She’s a really talented artist, and she came to life as she was presenting. She really leaned into it; it was fun to watch her.”
Other students who attended were positive about the conference—in some ways echoing Schwarz’s experience as an eighth grader. Kayla Thugi ’25 said, “This was my first time attending an event like this. I was very excited to attend because I would be able to hear from others just like me and about their experiences at schools like Rivers. It was nice to hear their perspectives.” She particularly appreciated a discussion about clothing and the pressure to wear (or not wear) certain things—a time-honored middle school concern amplified for students of color. “We talked about how it doesn’t matter what you wear…. The need to dress a certain way should be only for your own purpose, not to fit in with others but to make you feel comfortable,” she said.
A highlight for many attendees was keynote speaker Mykee Fowlin (introduced by Marcos Ramos ’25), whose lively, powerful performances weave together poetry, psychology, and acting as he speaks in the voices of various characters. “He lets you look inside the worlds of his characters,” says Schwarz. “You just grow in empathy when you hear him speak.” One seventh grade attendee commented on the performance through Sched, the conference virtual platform, “His speech changed my life. And I feel like it will help me help others in the future.”
The final dance party, led by energetic DJ Will Gill (who was introduced by Yan), had students out of their seats and dancing in the comfort of their own homes. “I got to see some of our students be expressive in a way I don’t on campus, breaking a sweat dancing,” said Love.
The conference went out on a festive note, but participants were also mindful of its serious purpose. Love noted that hosting the conference was an important step for Rivers. “It showed that we are trying to take some steps forward and attend to everyone on campus,” he said. “It shows that we’re willing to put our talk into action.”