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Summit brings teens together to talk about easing racial tensions

Amherst Central High school challenges its students, as well as several other schools, to promote positive change.

After the sudden and devastating death of Mike Brown and the civil disobedience in Ferguson. Mo., that followed, Amherst’s C.I.A. (Covenant In Action) club evolved into a new program: Challenge 2 Change.

Taking its name from Rochester’s Rock 2 Change, which holds summits twice a year, the club wanted to focus on how to prepare the next generation toward easing racial tensions. Last year April, Amherst paired up with University at Buffalo social work students to train students to be more educated and comfortable in confronting and discussing racism.

Throughout last year and over the summer, the club members met to discuss which topics would be focused on at its first summit, and how they would deliver the material in an impactful way.

With the help of Amherst’s Youth Board, Daemen College, a grant from Teaching Tolerance and the club’s advisers, Mark Jones and Susan Saladino, Challenge 2 Change became a reality.

On Nov. 16, Amherst hosted the first C2C leadership summit. Williamsville South, North and East joined in, along with Sweet Home and Kenmore East and West high schools, in sending 20 students each to participate. The summit’s aim was to focus on educating students about race issues and encouraging unity.

"The point of these summits is to give students the opportunity, time and space to talk about a topic that is very important and often overlooked," said Amherst Principal Gregory Pigeon. "We want to educate and build leadership skills in order for our students to confidently confront these problems in a positive solution-based approach."

The day started in Daemen’s Wick Building, as students got their name tags and sat at their assigned tables that held students from different schools. A slide show played on the left side of the stage. Among the slides were images promoting unity and diversity, along with pictures of well-known figures like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

The summit was mainly run by student facilitators or "Change Agents" who introduced the keynote speaker, rules and activities. From UB’s School of Social Work, Dr. Annahita Ball and her students volunteered their time to help facilitate and encourage conversations at each table.

Kara Oliver, the keynote speaker, holds many titles in Buffalo, such as Niagara University’s assistant director for their Higher Education Opportunity Program and as a former representative for National Federation for Just Communities. In her address, she emphasized that everyone had a perspective to share that’s different than the person sitting next to them. Quoting hip-hop artist Neo, she said, "I’m a movement by myself, but I’m a force when we’re together," – reminding everyone that they can make an impact alone, but if we work together there is nothing we can’t accomplish.

Local artist Blaise Mercedes performed a vibrant remix of "Valerie" by Amy Winehouse. She called upon two volunteers from the crowd to play the tambourine and harmonize.

Next, tables were each assigned a word with a short reading about it. Words like, racism, white privilege, anti-racist, non-racist, and microaggression. Afterward, each group made a poster with definitions and anecdotes. One person at each table then threw and caught a foam box microphone to share something about their term.

The groups then went to separate rooms for breakout sessions, where they did identity wheels, comfort-zone questions as well as describing the differences between dialogues, discussions and debates to strengthen their communication skills. In between sessions, students ate lunch and listened to the musical guests They then tossed the microphone around one more time to share what they had learned and what they plan to do with this knowledge. Students from one school said that they had been inspired to start their own Challenge 2 Change club and hope to one day host a similar summit. Another student stated that today they learned racism can affect an array of cultures.

In the folders given out to students and their administrators was a "toolbox" sheet filled with ideas to implement in their schools to keep the momentum of the conversation going. Some of these included holding multicultural weeks, training programs on how to confront racism, and hosting guest speakers at their schools.

The organization encourages students as well as the community to get involved and follow their Twitter page @C2CWNY.

Amherst hopes that the effects of this summit will have a long lasting impact on its community and plans to pass the hosting torch on to a neighboring school in the years to come.

Kelsey Dux is a senior at Amherst Central High School.


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