Empowering future leaders through dialogue: 2012 Empowerment Congress Youth Summit

While civil rights leader and activist Rev. Al Sharpton was speaking to a rapt audience at the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium during the 20th Anniversary Summit of the Empowerment Congress, a gathering of a different kind was occurring across campus. A diverse group of 250 children, youth and chaperones convened the 2012 Youth Summit. Participants, ranging from first graders to high school seniors, engaged in a dialectic approach modeled after “Days of Dialogue,” a series of conversations between cultural groups born in the wake of the 1992 civil unrest. The day’s event was entitled, “Youth Empowered: Celebrating Our Heritage, Strengthening Our Community.”

Lead Facilitator Avis Ridley-Thomas and trained facilitators from the UCLA Institute of Nonviolence, along with the assistance of educators and volunteers from the Empowerment Congress Education Committee assisted the students, who were randomly assigned to small groups, as they navigated a series of questions about conflict and problem solving. Facilitators posed a series of questions taken from Youth Issues, Youth Voices: A Guide for Engaging Youth and Adults in Public Dialogue and Problem-Solving, including ones such as: What (if any) issues have arisen in your school/community between racial and/or ethnic groups? What is being done in your school/community to address problems between groups? What has worked? What’s not working well? What could we do to reduce conflicts between groups? And lastly: How can youth take the lead?

The goal of the event was to elicit open and frank discussion, and it did. Young participants shared their views and experiences on race, culture and issues of inclusion as it related to their families, school environment and peer groups. Some spoke of divisions and tension in their schools and neighborhoods. Most students referenced the similarities that exist among various groups, yet spoke of living within isolated communities and proposed increasing activities among youth and adults that serve to bring individuals together. The overall tone of the Youth Summit was uplifting. Students were addressed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheriff Lee Baca, as well as noted actor, author and activist Hill Harper. Harper caused a stir when he spoke, urging the youths to believe in themselves, assuring them that they can overcome whatever obstacles come their way.

“The perspectives gained from engaging our youth add significant value to the Second District,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. ” If we are to raise up a generation of future leaders who will positively contribute to our communities, we must unapologetically support and promote our youth.” As the 2012 Youth Summit drew to a close, students were buoyant and empowered to go forward as leaders in their schools and communities. The Education Committee plans to hold smaller dialogues with youth at local schools as part of the 20th Anniversary Year of Empowerment.

More than 18 schools schools and organizations from throughout the diverse tapestry of the Second District participated, including: Washington Preparatory High School, Morningside High School , Kayne Eras Center, Tongan American Youth Foundation, Century Center for Economic Opportunity Inc. (Youthbuild), J. Eldridge Taylor (JET) Foundation, Educating Young Minds, Verbum Dei High School, Brotherhood Crusade, Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) and Animo Pat Brown High School.