ashland.news
May 25, 2024

Black Youth Leadership Summit back in-person after being online during pandemic

Two hundred and thirty sixth-through-12th graders from the Southern Oregon Education Service District participated in the Black Youth Leadership Summit on the SOU campus April 10. Bob Palermini photo
April 19, 2023

More than 200 Black students gather at SOU, learn about Black history, bond over shared experiences 

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

When Marvin Woodard Jr. moved to the Rogue Valley more than 20 years ago, he essentially asked where he could find Black community spaces, and remembers being met with some hostility.

Woodard, equity coordinator for racial justice at Southern Oregon University and one of the co-creators of the Black Youth Leadership Summit, has since helped create more community spaces for Black students and their families in southern Oregon. The summit, held at SOU April 10, is formally organized by Black Southern Oregon Alliance.

Woodard started working at SOU in 2001 and has been supporting multicultural students on campus since 2004. While the event is not sponsored by SOU, he, along with Southern Oregon Education Service District Equity Specialist D.L. Richardson, are among a team of individuals working to make a space for shared belonging for Black students through the summit, which returned to the campus in person for the first time since 2020 last week. The summit drew 230 students.

Fred Saffold, director of the True Black History Museum in Troy, Michigan, speaks to students about the history of Black people in America. He also brought a large display of artifacts from the museum. Bob Palermini photo

“It really is uplifting and empowering to have people who look like you in a space with you, especially for many of them for the very first time in their lives,” Woodard told Ashland.news. “Our kids are craving it.”

The summit promotes the unique history of Black people in America and provides opportunities to build connections with fellow students who identify as Black/African American or want to learn more about Black identity and history, according to the Black Southern Oregon Alliance website.

This year, Fred Saffold, director of the True Black History Museum of Troy, Michigan, spoke to students, bringing along with him a large display of museum artifacts that were displayed on campus.

Students respond to Fred Staffold’s questions during his presentation to the students at the Stevenson Union on the SOU campus April 10. Bob Palermini photo

“The goal of the conference is to promote the beauty of blackness and to also provide a space 

for Black/African American-identified students to caucus in order to discover the issues of today that impact them the most,” according to the website.

Several school districts participated this year in the free conference, including Ashland, Phoenix-Talent, Three Rivers, Central Point and St. Mary’s, as well as home school students between sixth and 12th grade. Students gathered in the Rogue River Room in Stevenson Union on the Ashland campus, though the event is not organized by the university.

Students from area schools look at the display from the True Black History Museum. Bob Palermini photo

Participants heard from speakers on self care, empowerment, and community engagement. There is also time for students to share with one another in affinity circles.

Woodard’s own daughter has participated in the gathering in the past and he said he’s heard about conversations between her and others, from the products they use on their hair to feeling a sense of belonging amongst their peers, to talking about shared understandings,  like, “You’re not Black enough to be called Black, but you’re not white enough to be called white, because she’s a multiracial kid,” Woodard said, “and there are a lot of Black children who identify as multiracial.”

Students from area schools look at the display from the True Black History Museum. Bob Palermini photo

He also overheard conversations like: “I’ve never been in a place where when I talk about my experiences as a Black girl at an historically white school, everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, me, too, yeah, me, too,’” Woodard said, reiterating what his daughter told him after attending a summit in 2019, the year it began.

Woodard noted a sizeable increase in participants this year from the last prior in-person gathering in 2020. He sees only room for growth in the summit for the future, and noted that more students would have attended from Klamath County if conditions had allowed.

D.L. Richardson, Equity Specialist for the Southern Oregon Education Service District, told students about the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. Bob Palermini photo

The summit was scheduled to take place in February but was postponed due to snowy weather. The previous two years, in 2021 and 2022, the summit was held virtually due to  continued concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Woodard said the past couple years, the summit has still been successful as students were able to participate virtually. But he emphasized the fun of returning to the summit in-person, both for students and organizers. Members of the Black Student Union at SOU were on hand this year as well.

Students take notes during the Black Youth Leadership Summit held at Southern Oregon University Monday. Bob Palermini photo

“When you have something like that in person, it’s hard not to be excited,” he said, “it’s hard not to be overjoyed. And when the conversations really start building up about who you are, and where that pride should come from, it’s hard not to be enlightened and motivated.”

Woodard and Richardson created the summit through state and outside grant funding and held the first such summit in 2019.

To learn more about the organization behind the summit, go online at blacksouthernoregonalliance.com.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

April 19 update: Corrections made to number of students attending and D.L. Richarcharson’s employment affiliation.

Marvin Woodard, Equity Coordinator for Racial Justice at Southern Oregon University interacts with students as part of the Black Youth Leadership Summit held on the SOU campus Monday. Bob Palermini photo
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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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