Youth Diversity Summit
Fighting bigotry, racism and violence in schools
by Laura Salinger

      Madison area high school and middle school students gathered at the Overture Center
recently to tackle issues of race, culture, school climate and identity. The idea was to give
students an active role in dealing with diversity-related concerns within their schools.
      The Youth Diversity Summit-sponsored by the Urban League of Greater Madison, Centro
Hispano, and the Madison Metropolitan School District-drew together around 150 youth for this
first-time event aimed at uniting diverse student body populations. Organizers hope that students
will take the lead in better equipping their schools to fight bigotry, racism, and violence.
      “I think it’s really important for us as adults to sincerely listen to students,” MMSD REAL Grant
Communications Coordinator Julie Koenke says. “It is really important for us to begin to help
youth develop skills so that they can be active contributors in the solving the problems they face.”
The summit was the brainchild of Judith Rosario, the youth program director for both the Urban
League of Greater Madison and Centro Hispano.
      “The main purpose of the event was to make sure that students were talking about the issues
and concerns they face on a daily basis,” Rosario said. “We take for granted that because they are
young, they don’t have great ideas. Giving them the opportunity to voice their opinions can really
improve school climate.”
      While Madison and its schools continuously seek ways to accept and celebrate diversity and
culture, there unfortunately remains underlying, sometimes insidious, tensions related to race and
class. Occasionally these tensions rear their ugly head very publicly. Such is the case when
Madison Memorial High School, in response to heightened tension among students, closed its
doors early just one day after seven students were arrested. The October arrests took place after a
violent altercation said to be fueled by a racial slur.
      Still, the actions of a few aren’t holding back the many other students that seek a peaceful
and safe school environment. Students taking part in the summit compiled a list of the issues their
schools face and the actions needed to combat these issues. These were displayed in a Gallery
Walk.
      James C. Wright Middle school students say rumors, jealousy, language, and gossip are
issues at their school. They plan to create M&M (Meet and Mix) groups, along with other school
activities, in order for “people get to know each other better so they gossip less.” Sennett Middle
School students say they want to build a “community of trust and understanding.” Oregon High
School students want to stop the use of the words gay and retarded all together and Shabazz
High School plans to create an “environment where people feel safe in expressing themselves.”
The student leaders will bring back action plans to their respective schools and implement them
with the help of a designated school staff or faculty member.
      They have lofty goals, but ones that organizers believe are attainable if students take the
lead in creating change. A number of notable community leaders heard the student’s plans and
offered feedback.
      “It takes a lot, first of all, to identify what the issues are,” Madison’s Department of Civil Rights
Director Lucia Nunez said. “Often the root of those issues, as one young man so eloquently said,
is lack of respect.”
      Madison Police Chief Noble Wray told students that he too often hears about the differences
that draw people apart and he encouraged students to focus, instead, on what draws them
together.
      
MULTICO (Top left and center) performs a skit; (other photos)
diverse panel answers questions from the youth participants
in the audience; workshop notes.
ls
      Centro Hispano Executive Director Peter Munoz looked to students to lead the way in creating a generation better able to understand and respect the
diverse community we live in.
“We need to work in a way that instills, in all of us, the value that diversity brings,” Munoz says. “You are the face of the world, you are the future.”
     In the audience, the faces of this young generation were diverse — White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, traditional student school leaders, and non-traditional
student school leaders — all gathered in the spirit of unity and problem-solving.
     A West High School student, Jesus, addressed the students and leaders and inspired rousing applause for his moving message.
     “We want everybody to be together like they are right now,” he said. “Everyone’s a community right now-there’s love, there’s family — that’s what we want. As
Martin Luther King said, darkness can not drive out darkness, only light can do that.”
     West High School’s performance troupe Multico closed down the summit with with skits that tackled issues related to race, culture, stereotyping, and identity.
Sometimes comic, sometimes sobering, Multico’s performances offered up a poignant look into the issues faced by today’s students. Their last words: “Yes We
Can.”