On April 14 and May 12, students from across the Vancouver School District gathered online for the third annual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Youth Conference. The conference theme was “Tell Your Story” and was planned and led by students.
DJ O Show, an Afro-Indigenous member of the Squamish Nation opened both days with a musical performance. Mixing top 40 hits, her set was broadcast live from the Education Centre to classrooms across the District.
The first presenter of the conference was Chinyere Eni, an executive at the Royal Bank of Canada. Growing up in Vancouver with a Nigerian father and Indigenous mother, she said she cherished her heritage, but at times felt discrimination. At the age of eight, she was diagnosed with cancer (the same form of aggressive cancer as Terry Fox) resulting in the amputation of her leg. “One of the hardest things about having a disability is that people see it before they see you,” she said.
Eni grew her resiliency on her road to recovery. She reminded students of the importance of a keeping a positive mindset. “What we focus on grows,” she said. “Going through painful moments makes you stronger. Regardless of the challenge you’re dealing with, you will be as successful as you dare.”
Next, Ruby Smith Diaz, an Afro-Latina youth facilitator and artist encouraged students to be true to themselves. “Don’t be scared to be you. Be the weird, authentic, unapologetic you,” she said.
On the second day of the conference, students heard from Martin Boyce, the last surviving Stonewall Riot activist, who shared his part in one of the most pivotal demonstrations in queer/trans history. Growing up in New York in the 50s and 60s, he told students that people had to conform. “I always knew how important it was not to come out. Life was very difficult to maneuver if you were a gay person,” he said. When asked how students could continue the fight for equality and support the 2SLGBTQ+ community today, Boyce replied, “by being themselves. That kind of courage, the kind of battle within you … that takes a great deal of courage. You have a chance to truly envision freedom,” he said.
Students also had the chance to hear from New Zealand Māori writer and speaker, Jolene Stockman. Stockman spoke of how embracing her place in the world as a Māori woman with autism has given her a positive sense of identity. To her, neurodiversity should be celebrated. “The world needs more different. Everyone has a place,” she told students.
Both days of the conference concluded with Vancouver Island artist, Carina Nilsson, who presented live illustrations of the speakers and topics presented.
According to Director of Instruction Deena Kotak Buckley, feeling a sense of belonging is the first step in creating safe and caring school environments. "A sense of belonging is when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion and identity — where every student feels they have the spaces and places to show up and be their whole and authentic self," she said.
Eight students from Prince of Wales, Point Grey, University Hill and John Oliver began planning for the conference with District staff in January. At this year’s conference, over 1400 participants (students, staff and guests) came together to learn and hear stories of diversity and resilience.