ashland.news
July 23, 2024

‘It’s about empowerment’: Students of color enjoy educational summer camp at SOU

Oregon Department of Education Assistant Superintendent Deb Lange addressed the students participating in the Black Youth Summer Institute at SOU. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
July 9, 2024

About 50 take part in the week-long Black Youth Summer Institute

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

As the first Black Director of the Oregon Department of Education, Dr. Charlene Williams urged pride and persistence to Southern Oregon students of color Sunday night. 

“We are the descendents of kings, queens, warriors and scholars. We are resilient about the trials and tribulations in our past but our story is not just about struggle but it is about excellence. … You are the creators of your own destiny and capable of shaping the world around you,” Williams said. 

Around 50 students were gathered in the Rogue River Room at Southern Oregon University Sunday night. Their families and a smattering of educators sat with them for a celebratory beginning to the Black Youth Summer Institute, a week-long educational summer camp organized by the Black Southern Oregon Alliance.

Williams underlined that the “beautiful color and texture,” of diversity in Oregon’s education system is, for now, made up of far more students of color than teachers. 

Dr. Charlene Williams, the Oregon Department of Education Superintendent, spoke to the students attending the Black Youth Summer Institute at SOU via Zoom. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Speaking after Williams, Deb Lange said as a teacher of color in Oregon her students met her with “eyes this big” she said as she held her hands cupped around her eyes. Their eyes were even bigger when she became a principal. Now as assistant superintendent at the ODE, Lange encouraged her audience to use the tools at their disposal and to make the most of the moment in front of them. 

“This room is brimming with the potential to change the world,” she said. 

After the speeches were over, the parents said their goodbyes and the students had all been guided away to SOU university housing, some program organizers and parents took a moment to reflect on the program’s significance. 

SOU President Rick Bailey welcomes black students participating in the Black Youth Summer Institute to the SOU campus. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Staci Buchwald’s daughter has told her she enjoys the release of freely learning with others who look like her. 

“She told me she doesn’t have to worry if someone thinks she’s smart when she’s here,” she said. 

Sessceal Reynolds nodded her head, echoing the enjoyment of easier connections and opportunities voiced by her 14-year-old son. 

“Our kids don’t get told they’re brilliant that often,” she said. 

During a recent unit on African American history at school, her son struggled with “big feelings,” as the only student of color in his class. 

The Black Youth Summer Institute is a residential camp exploring a range of classes, lectures, cultural experiences and recreational activities in a university setting for black students completing grades 7-12. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Marvin Woodard, the program director, said students of this age can’t hear support or encouragement enough. Starting in 2021, the camp for 12-19 year olds continues to grow as word spreads to isolated students of color around Oregon. Parents sometimes contact him months ahead of the program to ensure their students have a slot.

The grant-funded program hopes to gain enough funding to sustain itself and continue to grow to meet demand while remaining free to students. For this year’s camp, Woodard said students will enjoy classes from drone operation and math to “telling their story” through writing or podcast creation.

D.L. Richardson holds up the jersey students will receive as part of the 2024 Black Youth Summer Institute at SOU. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Association with the Black Southern Oregon Alliance and its other programs is a boon to parents too, Woodard said. No parent is excluded. White parents of Black children freely seek and receive support to be the best for their children. Parents and group organizers meet regularly to keep track of ways the Oregon School District could better serve these students and support each other.  

Dr. Larry Gibbs said, as one of three Black professors at SOU, he’s happy to participate in the camp as a visual model of what’s possible for these students. 

“Ultimately, it’s about empowerment,” he said. 

To support the Black Youth Summer Institute or learn more about the Black Southern Oregon Alliance, visit the organization’s website.

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

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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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