Should the People of Color Conference be for People of Color? | Sanje Ratnavale | 9 Min Read

September 19, 2023

It was 2004 when a teacher of color was sent by the girls’ school at which he taught to Hawaii for the People of Color Conference (POCC). Coincidently, it was also the start of a movement at independent schools to challenge the Western canon, an exciting pivot away from the Western survey course that this teacher had inherited. He had been accepted into College in the UK on the strength of his academic skills in History but was never exposed to a book like Europe and the People without History, which changed his outlook after he came to the United States. When he was a middle school student at one of the oldest and most iconic independent schools in the world, Harrow School, the school of Winston Churchill and Lord Byron, this teacher had endured racism as a South Asian, not from his teachers but from his fellow students. In his mind, then, as he flew to Hawaii, were the racial slurs an older boy hurled at him daily, deeply hurtful at 13 years old, and leading to tears and support from his older brother. He had developed his tools of retaliation. He simply outperformed all his classmates in virtually every subject, and he relied on his unfailing optimism. He expected to be challenged and to challenge at this conference. 

That teacher was me.

On the second day, the attendees were sorted into smaller groups until they found their place in what were called, somewhat innocuously, affinity groups. I dutifully joined the affinity group in which I was placed. We all sat in a circle like a campfire and that felt safe. The moderator started by asking us to “breathe in the moment”. I looked around, seeing nothing odd. She then said, 

“I hope as you look at each other, you feel more safe than you have at your school… in life, where you don’t get to be with others of such affinity. Your people. Take a moment to reflect and then let’s go around to have each of you let the group know how you feel.” 

One by one the group members started talking about how they felt. And then I realized, I was meant to identify emotionally and intellectually with the individuals in the group simply because they looked (a little?) like me. I am Sri Lankan by birth, and I…

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Sanje Ratnavale

Sanje founded OESIS in 2012 and serves as the President of what has grown to become the leading network for innovation at independent schools: the acronym OESIS grew from the initial focus on Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools. He has held senior administrative positions at independent schools including Associate Head of School at a K-12 school for seven years, High School Principal for three years, and CFO for seven years. Prior to making a switch to education, Sanje spent 15 years in venture capital, investment banking, and senior C-level (CEO, COO, CFO) management. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University (B.A. and M.A. in Law/Jurisprudence). Sanje is based out of Santa Monica.