By DAVE LAVENDER
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. Steven Smith’s instructions Sunday afternoon to a room full of students were simple — state your name, your school, one thing you want to accomplish this year, then go post your idea poster on the wall, while your peers cheer wildly.
The instructions came in the final wrap-up session at the Don Morris Room at Marshall University for this weekend’s second Young WV Power Building Conference, which was hosted by Our Children Our Future, a campaign to end childhood poverty in West Virginia. It drew more than 200 students ages 15 to 25 from high schools and universities all over the state.
In that final session, one by one, students such as Kiana Minter, a senior at Logan High School, brought their ideas for change to the wall. Her team wants to advocate for better access to broadband and for more resource officers and teachers while students from Greenbrier County want better mental health policies and LGBTQ opportunities, while Ohio County students were advocating for better education about exercise and health and while students from WVU Tech want a multicultural celebration week, for which they have already planned out the daily themes.
The weekend-long workshop was led by the teens with help from a team of 25 diverse volunteer coaches from various agencies and institutions, including Marshall. It started with a Friday visit to the Robert C. Byrd Institute, then featured morning and afternoon sessions on everything from health such as yoga and using food for medicine, to empowerment such as how to run for office, how to maintain sanity while attending college, how to be yourself and become an effective leader and how to create an environment of wellness in your school.
Jennifer Wells, director of youth development and leadership for Our Children Our Future, said the last Sunday session was to help the students focus on what they most want to change about their school or area. To help fund and empower their local chapters to take those steps to create positive change, the students are going home with $300 mini grants.
“We have had some deep dives into some issues that these young people are dealing with on a daily basis and things they want to change,” Wells said of the weekend conference. “This moment is taking all of those moments of talking about things like what it is like to be LGBTQ student in a rural community or African-American student in America and in West Virginia, and what do you need in your schools, and how do we make sure that quality education is accessible, we have had all of these discussions. Now they are in their Chapter teams, it could be a community-based team or a school team, and they have learned about how to form policy and how to work policy into language that can be moved into legislation, whether it be a local level or a state level. So now they are learning how they will function this year as a student chapter and how we are going to support them.”
From West Virginia University, Yasmeen Stubblefield and Jessica Frazier, the president and vice president of WVU’s NAACP chapter, came to Marshall to hone their leadership skills to take back to campus.
“Mostly what I have taken from the conference is leadership skills and how to build up other people around us to be better leaders,” Stubblefield said. “What I have seen from the conference is young people ready to get involved and ready to make change in their communities. Sometimes I tend to think like it is all on me to make the change, so it is kind of like encouraging other people to be get involved and become leaders and want to make change, because the best change will come when we are all in unison working together and fighting for the same things.”
Frazier said she felt like it was fruitful to be in sessions where she really got to listen to her peers discussing their experiences as young African-Americans in today’s America.
“I would say the Black Caucus was something I enjoyed because I liked having that discussion and I liked listening to other people share their thoughts and feelings on what it is like to be black in America and black in West Virginia,” Frazier said. “We also focused on how to be well-rounded individuals and how to focus on all the different aspects of our lives and not just one, and also how to focus on not just the stresses but also on how to take care of yourself and self care.”
Wells said that as was evident by the ideas put forth Sunday afternoon that the conference, which doubled in size from last year, is sending away both students and volunteer coaches who are energized about the continued work and prospects in building a more creative, sustainable West Virginia.
“We doubled our attendance, and we’ve seen a whole lot of new kids, and that is the idea: to bring new blood and new ideas and letting themselves as the lead and opening their eyes to the possibilities,” Wells said.
Go online at http://www.ocofwv.org/ to find out more information about Our Children Our Future and the Young West Virginia Power Building Conference.
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