ASHLAND -- Freshman Anaya Dey said that it has been a challenge to find community with other black students at North Medford High School.
"You barely see them," she said.
But feelings of isolation were quelled for at least a day as 63 black high school students from across the valley gathered Thursday at the first Black Youth Leadership Summit at Southern Oregon University.
"Being around people that have the same cultural experience as you, and look like you and have the same ancestors as you, who are from the same continent as you — that's a very profound experience," said Jerrihaun Robinson, a junior at South Medford. "Especially in this area since there are so few of us."
The adult leaders who collaborated to organize the daylong summit created a multifaceted experience for the students. The participants shared in celebration and pain, learned sobering history and spoke about their hopes for the future of their schools and the world.
“For many of these students, they haven’t seen this many folks that look like them all in one space,” said Marvin Woodard, coordinator at SOU’s Multicultural Resource Center. “And then to top it off, they haven’t seen this type of diversity in their own cultures.”
The workshops students participated in dealt with topics such as microaggressions or personal wounds from racist experiences and offered a chance to see the internal diversity Woodard referred to. In a “Healing Through Art” breakout session led by Matthew Reynolds, who leads the drama and dance department at Crater Renaissance Academy, students talked about a variety of circumstances in their homes. Some had been in the foster-care system, while others struggled for a sense of belonging due to being multiracial.
Another breakout session focused on Oregon’s history with race, detailing how exclusion policies, broken treaties with native tribes and the Klu Klux Klan’s influence in politics have left lasting impacts.
One of the presenters in that session highlighted 19th- and 20th-century studies that used facial and cranial characteristics to try to prove Irish and black people were lazier and less intelligent than white populations.
Isis Green, a sophomore at South Medford, asked why head shape would be considered a way to understand intelligence.
“It’s a narrative,” answered Lt. Hector Meletich, who oversees patrol operations at the Ashland Police Department. “It’s a story that was created ... to keep people of color in their place. If we create a narrative about something and we fool people into thinking it’s true. ... They’re going to act accordingly.”
He encouraged students to question the materials they encounter in school and after gradution, and to evaluate what narratives the sources might be biased to support.
Reynolds, who opened the event with a keynote speech, also encouraged students to question the ways they think about themselves.
“How much of your thinking is your thinking?” he asked. “Are you just fitting in? Or do you belong?”
Sharing stories, the students said, helped them realize the connections they share, as well as the ways they want to lift each other up.
“I was very excited to come here and see people with similar stories to me, similar experiences to me and people with similar passion about the black community,” Robinson said.
Some students are actively embracing community-building roles. Dey and two classmates, Marianne Hatley and Angie White, also freshmen, are establishing an African American Student Union at North Medford.
The goal is similar to the Thursday event, Dey said.
“It’s just like a place where black students can go and feel more comfortable with themselves,” she said. “Our club is like where you can be true to yourself, and true to who you are.”