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DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION

Umoja: A Regional Conference of Unity

By Shwetangna Chakrabarty
25-Oct-23
Umoja: A Regional Conference of Unity


At this year’s Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA) conference, it quickly became apparent that the theme, “Umoja: Oneness through Community – Connections – Stories,” was not only an idea but a movement, a culture of community that would spread throughout the participants. Workshops, deep dive sessions, and keynote addresses, wove Umoja, which means unity in Kiswahili, throughout the preconference sessions for professional development (3-6 October) and the main conference (7-9 October), demonstrating AISA’s commitment to the togetherness of the regional community.

Through discussions with peers and colleagues from across the continent, I experienced an overwhelming sense of empowerment from the theme, Umoja. I heard heartwarming, inspiring, and real-life stories like the Roots and Shoots initiative by Jane Goodall, the Umoja women’s community in Kenya, Dr. Paula Kahumbu’s activism for defending rights for elephants in Africa and globally. This is the beauty of regional conferences, the stories in the region lift what you do; and there are so many stories in Africa. The spirit of the continent - oneness, unity, and community- was the key takeaway for every educator.

Community

This regional conference brought together a community of educators with a passion for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) and a common goal of togetherness.

During her keynote address at the start of the conference, Elizabeth Imende, the incoming Executive Director of the AISA for 2024, demonstrated the power of vulnerability in leadership, setting the tone for the rest of the conference. Encouraged to authentically acknowledge each other, the community of international educators in Africa called, “Sawubona” (I see you) and “Yebo, Sawubona” (yes, I see you). This is a great takeaway for international educators working in diverse environments-acknowledge each other first, remember “Sawubona.”

Keynote address by Elizabeth Imende. (Photo source: Shwetangna Chakrabarty)

Connections

Umoja defined the connections that are necessary to empower educators to bring about a positive change by growing together. With multiple professional development opportunities, educators were able to share their experiences and learn from others. Being given a safe space to talk about our purpose and our journey with our peers created an instant feeling of being connected by an invisible culture of caring for the community around you- an African way of living- Ubuntu (I am because you are).

Slides from keynote address by Elizabeth Imende. (Photo source: Shwetangna Chakrabarty)

Joel Jr Llaban, Director of DEIJ for International School Services and TIE editorial team member, led a workshop on the purpose of DEIJ work and what it means to be committed to anti-racism and equity. School heads and leaders were able to make connections by discussing common challenges and strength. Their true commitment to education was challenged as well as celebrated through these deep dive sessions. I felt an authentic and vulnerable connection to each participant during his guided discussion.

“We desire to bequeath two things to our children: the first one is roots, the other one is wings.” – Sudanese proverb referenced by Elizabeth Imende in her keynote address.

These connections are Umoja or togetherness that exists within the very roots and shoots of schools in Africa. We sing, we dance, we present in the hope of a better future with unity. Educators shared examples of feeling that sense of connectedness outside of the conference. When schools in Khartoum were forced to close, support was offered to displaced students and teachers, online classes were offered to ensure student wellbeing, demonstrating the roots that are deep within the AISA community.

Stories

Educators are honed storytellers- planning a lesson, delivering it, giving feedback in assessments- we weave stories throughout our profession. This was exemplified by the keynote speaker, Estelle Hughes, Secondary School Principal at International School of Dakar - ISD, who sang to deliver a power message, “Umoja entails genuine connection.” Our hearts resonated with this message, united for peace, for equality. I felt a hope in this sense of unity for a world deep in humanitarian crises.

During the conference, many people came together to share powerful narratives and inspiring stories in workshops:

  1. John Burns, Chief Innovation Officer for International Schools Services (ISS), led a workshop on Leveraging Generative AI across K-12: An Inclusive Design Sprint to quip participants with valuable insights into the potential of generative AI, enabling them to spearhead its implementation.
  1. Elmeka Henderson, Head of Student Support at the International School of Dakar - ISD, contributed to the Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA) 2023 DEIJ guide by sharing strategies for safeguarding gender-diverse students with creativity and compassion. She also led workshops at the conference to educate and inform school leaders, teachers and administrators.
  1. LeeAnne Lavender, AISA Service Learning Program Coordinator, led the Service Learning panel discussion with educators and students who shared their stories of connecting with communities. She also led the deep dive session for true engagement in service learning and global citizenship. Read more about the same initiatives she has continued with AISA since 2013: https://www.tieonline.com/article/229/sustainability-partnerships-grow-in-wake-of-aisa-service-summit.
  1. Jennifer Abrams, Communications Consultant with Jennifer Abrams Consulting, delivered a powerful workshop, based on her books, Having Hard Conversations, Hard Conversations Unpacked and Stretching Your Learning Edges: Growing (Up) at Work, providing participants with action plans, scripting tools, and strategies for having necessary hard conversations. Read more about her work: https://www.tieonline.com/article/3311/building-resiliency.
  1. Darnell Fine, Deputy Principal at Singapore American School, led an impactful workshop through interactive discussions, sharing case studies and experiential activities that helped participants to develop a shared vision, create a philosophy statement, and design a DEIJ scope and sequence responsive to their unique school contexts. Read more from Darnell: https://www.tieonline.com/article/3028/black-skin-white-language-an-open-letter-to-my-dear-friends.
  1. Perseverance in the Face of Challenge, AISA Women in Leadership panel discussion addressed the theme Umoja based on the experiences of the panel and share insights on their journey into leadership positions. This session was open to all those who value women leaders and advocate for greater representation of women in school leadership roles. 
  1. Peter Bateman, Executive Director of the Association of International Schools in Africa, led the AISA DEIJ Collaborative Affinity Group that provided a safe space for educators and leaders in the AISA region to discuss and plan around DEIJ issues in AISA schools.
  1. Chanel Worsteling, Child Protection and Wellbeing Program Coordinator for AISA, led the AISA Counsellors’ Symposium to explore counselor positionalities and how this impacts engaging meaningfully with students.

All of these beautiful stories and vulnerable moments of togetherness connected all who attended in togetherness. We learn together as a community, teach as a community, and grow as a community. With this spirit, educators went back to their schools to continue the work of service learning, student wellbeing, DEIJ, and leadership- embracing the purpose of unity to make genuine connections for the holistic development of a child.

My heart is full of stories that inspire, restorative connections, and a sense of belonging that an international educator yearns for outside their own place of origin.

I feel Umoja, I feel United.

 

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Shwetangna Chakrabarty is the Editor of the International Educator (TIE).




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