Quaker Youth Leadership Conference at Friends' Central

“That QYLC vibe was strong,” commented one participant at the end of this year’s Quaker Youth Leadership Conference. This long-standing annual program of the Friends Council on Education (hosted on a rotating basis by various Friends schools) was held virtually in 2021 and made its in-person return this spring…at Friends’ Central!  

We last hosted in 2011, and those of us who participated then know how rich and satisfying it is to explore the unique experience of Quaker education in the company of fellow members of Friends school communities. In spite of the ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty, FCS co-clerks of the Religious Life Committee,  Robyn Richmond and Anna Schall, volunteered to host this year’s conference and we gathered (in a hybrid offering) at the City Avenue campus between February 3-5. Fifteen Friends Schools participated, about half  in person, though only one school (the intrepid group from Friends School of Baltimore) spent the nights on our campus. Though the hybrid format was challenging–at times almost like planning two separate conferences–it was rewarding to include distant Quaker schools like Pickering College in Canada, as well as closer schools still following restrictive COVID-19 practices to be part of this year’s gathering. 

Students check-in for the conference.

The theme chosen by the steering committee of students, Seeking Equity Through Stories, was rich and satisfying, an especially powerful lens as we tentatively step out of COVID-19 isolation and back into community. As Robyn Richmond said, “It is always uplifting to attend QYLC with our students. It was amazing to have the opportunity to collaborate, plan and implement,  with 15 of our dedicated students, a conference that shared the best of who we are with so many other Friends schools.”  

It takes a lot to create such a comprehensive, satisfying experience, and many thanks are due to our student hosts and planners, who have been working on the conference since last spring.  12th graders Drew Bukasa, Sean McGoff, Anna Miller, Blake Riesenfeld, Madison Smith, Micah Trusty, and Day’Mon Wimberley; 11th graders Faiza Carey, Lucca Frattone, Haylee Gibson, Alex Hexstall,  and Sarah Leonard; 10th graders Spencer Kim and Azaria Sifontis; and 9th grader Erian Henighan were amazing leaders: creative, detail-oriented, and committed.  Our visitors commented on how impressive it was to “watch the Friends’ Central students lead so inclusively and collaboratively.” FCS adults CJ Keller, Tom MacFarlane, Laurie Novo, Erica Snowden, Nora Swift, and Al Vernacchio supported Robyn and Anna, who shouldered the majority of the planning and implementation.  

Keynote speaker Ron Norsworthy.

Friday’s program was a high point. “I loved the keynote! He really made an impact with our kids, when we debriefed. We have a few artists in our bunch, for whom his art was very meaningful. He matched the QYLC vibe perfectly,” said one chaperone. Our speaker, Ron Norsworthy, is an activist artist and designer whose early work creating sets for music videos, television, and film established his ongoing interest in 2making explicit the visual cues that tell us whether and how we belong in a space. In his talk, building from Brene Brown’s observation that belonging is the opposite of fitting in, Ron talked about his own experiences and his mission to show us whose stories are being told and whose are not; that framing was revelatory to Sean McGoff ‘22, who observed, “I hadn’t thought of identity occupying space in the way that Ron described it (which is most likely due to me being white).” The keynote, streamed to QYLC hybrid participants and to the rest of the FCS Upper School during their assembly block, was followed by a Q&A session for those who were attending in person. As one student said, she was in awe of “the engagement with Ron, his openness and receptivity, just the overall enthusiasm and engagement of the people who were there.”
“I have a new appreciation for the way we do Meeting for Worship here, coming out of pandemic and entering into the silence.  Silence holds more significance to me now.” 

The keynote was complemented by a rich panel of activist storytellers who use art and stories to express (and help others express and recognize) their truth. Natasha Cohen Carroll is a documentary filmmaker who “creates media that increases representation, amplifies underrepresented stories, and builds community.” She spoke about her work with Youth Arts Self-Empowerment Project (YASP) to create mitigation videos for youth facing incarceration, a powerful example of using storytelling for equity. Dwight Dunston, FCS ’06, is a hip-hop artist and facilitator for Lion’s Story, an organization dedicated to helping us develop our ability to claim and process racial stories to heal from racial conflict.  Jesse White, a Quaker artist, helps people understand and tell their stories through cathartic art-making, and Shahidah Kalam Id-Din joined us from Penn Charter, where her professional development work centers on mentoring students and colleagues as they develop capacity in diversity, equity, and inclusion work within a Quaker context.  FCS student facilitators Alex Hexstall ‘23 and Anna Miller ‘22 had prepared questions for the panel, starting from “What is the first story you felt you had to tell?”  

Students socializing.

Additional conference programming included affinity groups, a talent show (a long-standing QYLC tradition!), icebreaker get-to-know-you sessions offered by Al Vernacchio and Erica Snowden, Meeting for Worship, and some time for the most valuable experiences of all, building relationships with students from other Friends’ Schools, hanging out in the gym on Friday afternoon and in the library with our Friends School of Baltimore visitors after other groups had left campus for the night. HSA and FCS parents provided a bountiful Saturday morning breakfast, and teams of students and adults (both from FCS and elsewhere) hosted Saturday workshops. The conference ended with Meeting for Worship, among the most satisfying aspects for student steering committee member Azaria Sifontis ‘24: “I have a new appreciation for the way we do Meeting for Worship here, coming out of pandemic and entering into the silence.  Silence holds more significance to me now.” 

“I have a new appreciation for the way we do Meeting for Worship here, coming out of pandemic and entering into the silence.  Silence holds more significance to me now.”

Azaria Sifontis ’24

Personally speaking, I had a great time and am so grateful to be part of this community and the team of amazing students (cheerful and engaged from the start-of-the-day COVID-19 testing to the late-night sign-out as they headed home) and remarkable adults.  I’ve been here a long time, so I am no longer surprised by our amazing in-house talent—but watching FCS people do their thing still fills me with awe.

So many people stepped up to make the QYLC happen; its success was built on the generous participation of the whole community as QYLC shared facilities with a busy City Avenue campus in full swing on Friday, added catering and hosting responsibilities to our dining hall and security teams, relied on tech set-ups in the evening and on the weekend, and so much more.  It was a true community event, one that left the organizers tired but deeply satisfied.  We can’t wait to host again!

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