(Hartford, CT) High school students participating in the Hartford Region Open Choice Program spent their April spring break at the Open Choice annual Youth Empowerment Summit (YES), learning leadership skills and strategies to identify challenges, set goals, and build relationships. The goal of YES is to inspire students to develop and strengthen their voices, to prepare them for personal and community leadership and to encourage them to pursue higher education.
Participants also explored strategies to manage family neighborhood dynamics and how to build healthy and active social lives. The two-day social justice, community-building and leadership development portion of YES also gave students the opportunity to discuss issues related to self-identity; stereotypes; oppression (internal, interpersonal, institutional and ideological) and collaborative problem-solving as a strategy to address challenges, whether they are in school, home or community. The final day of the summit included a presentation and tour at the University of Connecticut Storrs campus.
Students also participated in a series of workshops offered by The Discovery Center that highlighted the complex experience students enrolled in Open Choice have in navigating academic expectations, self-identity, and access to extra-curricular activities.
During the self-identity activity, student Cedane R. shared that when he is in his suburban district, “I’m told I speak too ‘ghetto.’ When I’m home in Hartford, my friends tell me I speak too ‘white.’”
Students discussed code-switching – the act of switching between two languages in a conversation and between different cultures as one moves through life, depending on one’s present environment. Some nodded in agreement; acknowledging the struggle of juggling multiple identities, while other youths pointed out that code-switching was a skill that increases their likelihood of success without compromising their identity.
Keynote speaker Mike-Charles Nahounou, a performing artist and songwriter who has written for breakthrough artists on major record companies, along with being an overall entrepreneur, recommended to the youth that they not only get where they want to be, but enjoy the journey along the way. That also means avoiding 14 types of people, he continued. Among those to avoid include the martyr, the unambitious goat, the negative elephant, the narcissist, the moocher, the instant-gratification pleasure seeker, the depressed black cat, the revenge-seeker and the looters (bullies), among others.
“Don’t allow others to drain your energy and dreams,” Nahounou stressed. “Rather, look within for validation and be selective about who you surround yourself with.” Students acknowledged encountering some of the 14 personality types, both within suburban schools and their own neighborhoods. They also discussed the challenges they encountered within their school districts, and the rewards.
Throughout the Youth Empowerment Summit, students shared their hopes, concerns and perceived responsibilities, along with their discomfort with biases and stereotypes. In terms of personal responsibility, a female student noted to the group: “Some classes have been really challenging. When I’m struggling to understand something, I ask to meet with my teacher; we as students need to step up. We’re in high school now.” Clearly, students feel that the responsibility works both ways. Another student noted on a newsprint sheet with the heading ‘What I Want my Teachers to Know’: “I don’t want my teachers to underestimate my ability. You were once in my shoes.”
All students repeatedly were challenged to give it their all, to do their best - for themselves, but also for the Hartford students who will follow them into suburban high schools next year. “When you feel uncomfortable, don’t shy away from it,” noted Hartford City Councilwoman Wildalez Bermudez, minority leader with the Working Families Party in Hartford and an original plaintiff in Sheff vs. O’Neill. She added, “When you stay with it … with the discomfort … you grow.”
The Open Choice program was established in 1966. It is managed by CREC, and it offers Hartford students the opportunity to attend public schools in suburban towns and suburban students the opportunity to attend public schools in Hartford. These opportunities are at no cost to families, and the goals of the program are to improve academic achievement; reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation; and provide all children with a choice of high-quality educational programs.
For more information about Open Choice, visit www.crec.org/choice.
The Capitol Region Education Council was established in 1966. Working with and for its member districts, CREC has developed a wide array of cost-effective and high-quality programs and services to meet the educational needs of children and adults in the region. CREC brings nearly five decades of experience in education, regional collaboration, and operations to provide innovative strategies and products that address the changings needs of school districts and their students, corporations, non-profits, and individual professions. CREC regularly serves 36 towns in Greater Hartford, offering more than 120 programs to more than 150,000 students annually. CREC manages more than 35 facilities throughout the area, including 17 interdistrict magnet schools. More information about CREC and CREC’s award-winning schools is available at www.crec.org.