First Annual Vermont Academy Diversity Conference Draws Participants from across New England

Faculty, administrators, students, alumni, & trustees gather to explore issues of race, privilege, and community building
On Saturday, April 7, Vermont Academy hosted its first annual Vermont Academy Diversity Conference in honor of longtime head of school Michael Choukas Jr. The event was based on the Dalton Conference model and presented with the support of Dalton’s planning committee members. The event was designed for boarding schools in northern New England (both middle and high schools) as well as boarding, day, and public schools in Vermont. Gould Academy, The Winchendon School, Stoneleigh-Burnham School, and The MacDuffie School all sent delegations to the conference.

The Dalton model is unique in that a Dalton Diversity Conference is attended by schools, not individuals, and each school sends a group or “pod” made up of various constituencies, including faculty, administrators, students, alumni, parents, diversity professionals, and members of the school’s board of trustees.

Dr. Jennifer L. Zaccara, Vermont Academy’s head of school, has attended Dalton Diversity Conferences in the past and was thrilled to bring the Diversity Conference to Vermont Academy during her first year as head. Vermont Academy is the first boarding school to host a Dalton-style conference, and the first school in northern New England.

Conference attendees gathered in the morning by constituency group—alumni, board members, students, etc.—for facilitated small-group discussions. This allowed them to share common experiences and explore diversity issues relevant to their group. Conferees then met in the afternoon with the other attendees from their own school in order to form a one-year action plan to address a key diversity issue at their school.

This year, the theme of the Vermont Academy Diversity Conference was “Race, Privilege, and Community Building.” In future years, the conference will explore other diversity topics.

Dr. Nathaniel J. Williams gave the keynote address. Williams is a thought leader on diversity and inclusion issues and is the author of nine books. In 2007, Dr. Williams was appointed as the Frederick Douglass Institute Scholar-in-Residence at Kutztown University. His talk was focused on giving attendees the tools they needed to successfully address diversity issues at their schools. After his talk, the students in attendance remained in the room for a youth-focused question and answer session.

After the Q&A, students went to their morning focus groups, while alumni, parents, trustees, faculty, administrators, and diversity practitioners met in their groups to discuss issues of race, privilege, and community building from their own experiences and perspectives.

Hearing Students’ Voices

One highlight of any Dalton-style diversity conference is the student panel. In the afternoon, students from the five schools in attendance at the Vermont Academy Diversity Conference (Gould, Winchendon, Stoneleigh-Burnham, Macduffie, and Vermont Academy) spoke about their experiences with oppression and discrimination, as well as with equity, inclusion, and justice.

New England Premiere of “Off the Street” during Diversity Conference Weekend

The evening before the conference, on Friday, April 6, Vermont Academy students, faculty, and community members attended the New England premiere of “Off the Street.” In 1968, Jere Michael filmed this short documentary about a summer arts camp at Vermont Academy. The camp was created by teachers from the Art Students League in New York with the support of Vermont Academy’s then-head of school, Michael Choukas Jr., and was designed to provide opportunities in the arts to talented New York City high school students from diverse backgrounds.

The film remained in Michael’s garage and was not publicly released until October 2017, when it had its world premiere at the Hanson Film Institute in Arizona.

On April 6, the 26-minute film celebrated its 50th anniversary with a well-attended showing in the Nita Choukas Theater at Vermont Academy. Hoyes traveled from California to be at the screening and take questions afterward. He spoke about the transformative experiences he had at the camp and then as a student at Vermont Academy.

After attending the camp, Hoyes went on to enroll as a student at Vermont Academy, graduating in 1970 and pursuing a successful career as a visual artist. He formed Caribbean Cultural Institute and Caribbean Arts, Inc., and he has worked extensively with the Los Angeles Citywide Murals Programs. Oprah Winfrey, Natalie Cole, Steve Harvey, Keenan Ivory Wayans and the National Urban League are among his collectors.

Thank you to those who attended the film, to all the schools that attended the conference, and to the many Vermont Academy faculty, administrators, students, parents, alumni, community members, and members of the board of trustees who were part of this inspiring weekend. See you next year!
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Vermont Academy is a coed college preparatory boarding and day school in southern Vermont, serving grades 9-12 plus a postgraduate year.