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Teens gain insight during Youth Civil Rights Conference at Wayne Law

November 21, 2013

DETROIT – Groups of students from seven metro Detroit high schools gathered at Wayne State University Law School to talk about race, hoping to bridge their differences, bust stereotypes and build foundations for a better world.

The third annual Keith Students Youth Civil Rights Conference on Friday, Nov. 15, was run by law students who are active with Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. The event was sponsored by the Keith Center, Wayne State University Center for Peace & Conflict Studies and Keith Students for Civil Rights.

The conference brought suburban and urban students together for a day. Students came from César Chávez Academy High School in Detroit; Cody Academy of Public Leadership in Detroit; Denby High School in Detroit; Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School at Cody; Fordson High School in Dearborn; Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Detroit; and University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods. They shared meals and discussed the meaning of community, their own roles in a community and the role race plays in that community.

“One of our principal goals is to encourage the students to see themselves as part of a broader, inclusive metro Detroit community, which they can have a part in creating,” said H. Savala Nolan, director of the Damon J. Keith Law Collection of African American Legal History and program coordinator at the Keith Center. “Every year, this program grows. It’s a sign that Detroit-area youth want these unique opportunities to connect and learn and are committed to understanding and improving their communities.”

The teens began the day by talking about where they live and go to school and about how those experiences differed and how they were the same. And they talked about how they’d like those experiences to be. They talked about attitudes, and they talked about responsibilities.

One session involved a game with students standing in a circle and being asked a series of questions. To answer “yes” to a particular question, students silently stepped to the center of the circle.

“It was really powerful to watch and see how much we had in common without even talking,” said Megan DesMadryl, a 15-year-old white sophomore at University Liggett who lives in Algonac.

After lunch, the high school students, working in small groups, were assigned to spend an hour brainstorming together to create projects that will promote healthy race relationships and build community in metro Detroit – a way to break down the racial and cultural barriers that divide people.

Some of those project ideas, and the collaborative efforts that went into them, are what Evan Marquardt, a 14-year-old freshman at University Liggett who lives in Detroit, found remarkable.

“I think how well everything went actually kind of surprised me. There’s a lot of different groups: socioeconomic, race, everything,” said Evan, whose mother is black and father is white. “And I kind of expected at some point maybe there’d be tension. But it was great to see how we all came together because we had a common purpose as far as just making a difference in the community. And it helped us tremendously that we had so much diversity so that we could have a lot of perspectives as far as where we were coming from.”

The conference ended with a report from each group on its project idea, and with many students, urban and suburban, wishing for more time to keep the discussion going.

That’s the outcome event organizers wanted.

“It’s really important for students from a variety of communities – and community defined very broadly, geographically, culturally – to be able to come together and dialogue about really important issues in their communities,” said event organizer Carrie Floyd, a second-year law student from Ann Arbor and secretary of the Keith Students. “So they can see that their community may not look like another community and be able to understand and have those perspectives when they think about issues, especially issues related to class and race.”

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