About 275 students from across the area converged at the Dane County Youth Social Justice Forum on April 29 at American Family Insurance on Madison’s far east side. The purpose of the event was to bring youth leaders together from Dane County to make connections and have conversations around the work of social justice.

“It really is about empowering the student voices and as educators and adults really taking a step back and creating opportunities for our students that are challenging our community and then hearing what they think should happen moving forward,” Dr. Percy Brown Jr., director of Equity and Student Achievement for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, tells Madison365.

“For me, as somebody who loves and embraces student voices and does all that I can to empower student voices, I can’t wait to see what they come up with after this forum today,” Brown adds. “I believe that it will help guide the work of the Equity Consortium moving forward and it will be really good for school board members across the County to hear what their kids are saying that they’d like to see different.”

Students attend a breakout session at the Dane County Youth Social Justice Forum.

Another goal of the conference was for students to experience empathy to interrupt behaviors and barriers that limit a sense of belonging. The conference theme was empowerment.

“This conference came out of the work and the formation of the Dane County Equity Consortium,” Perry says. “For years, we were having conversations on what it would like if superintendents across Dane County would come together around shared learning around issues of equity but then figuring out ways to work collaboratively to address issues across the county and not just in our respective school districts.

“It finally started to materialize. We had a full-day retreat last year in July where we had about 18 superintendents alongside some designated staff that would kind of serve as the representatives for our monthly meetings.  I threw the idea out there for a Dane County High School Social Justice Conference,” he added.

Breakout Sessions at the Dane County Youth Social Justice Forum included topics like “Individual Racism,” “Rape Culture,” “Equity vs. Equality,” “Implicit Bias/Microagressions,”  “Understanding the History and role of race and racism,” “Opportunity Discovering Ways to Use Your Voice to Make Change,” “Social Justice Issues,” “Equity and Self-Care,” “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” “What’s up with- “That’s so Gay.” Moving away from shaming connotations, and” “History of the N- Word.”

“A month and a half ago, we had about 70 high school students from the different districts that actually came together for a full day to plan the event,” Perry says. “The breakout sessions were actually created by our kids. There were a lot of kids really fired up about this event.”

Jazmin Clausen-Thomas (left), a senior at Verona High School and Chloe Hale, a freshman from Madison Memorial

Chloe Hale, a freshman from Madison Memorial, tells Madison 365 that she was having a lot of fun at the Dane County Youth Social Justice Forum and that it was “an interesting day.”

“I really like that we are getting our voices out there,” says Chloe, who was a host for Breakout Session 10: Self-Care and Equity. “I also went to a workshop on microaggressions. Our schools have become so much more diverse since our parents were in schools and that’s why we believe it’s important to be tackling all of these diverse topics here today.

“When I was at the Self-Care and Equity workshop, you don’t think that that is a huge part of racism, but then you listen to people talk about it and you’re just like, ‘it’s definitely there and it’s definitely a huge part.’ It’s eye-opening,” Chole adds.

Jazmin Clausen-Thomas, a senior at Verona High School, attended morning workshops on “Institutional Racism” and “The History of the N-Word.”

“I’ve been to something like this before and it’s always fun to be around people who have shared similar passions as you do,” she tells Madison365. “The vibe here is really open and you feel like you can be very vulnerable even though we come from different backgrounds. I think it’s been really good so far.

“We’re learning quite a bit today. There are some things I didn’t know in regards to the institutional racism in housing,” Jasmine adds. “There’s a lot of stuff presented here today that you don’t think about in general and that ties along with privilege.”

Brown delivered the keynote address at the event. There was a student panel after lunch and an action planning session at the end of the day.  

“At the end of the day, the last hour is designed for the students to take what they’ve learned today and come up with what they’d like to see happen; not only in their respective school districts but for the Dane County Equity Consortium,” Brown says.

“So, we’re going to compile the data and move it forward to the Dane County superintendents meeting,” Brown adds. “We do have a Dane County School Board Equity Learning Session that’s going to happen in September, so we’ll also take the data from the kids and use that as part of the learning opportunity for the school boards across the Dane County.”

Students gather for lunch at the Dane County Youth Social Justice Forum.

The energy and activism at the Dane County Youth Social Justice Forum were contrary to the all-too-common false narrative that young people are all about being lazy, self-absorbed, and uninterested in national and world affairs.

“In my opinion, I think we care more about these problems,” Jazmin says. “We helped plan this and we wanted to be involved. I think the fact that we stepped up and planned this and said that we didn’t want adults to be involved in that process, I think that shows our generation cares.”

“These kids care about their world and they want to make it better. They have thicker skin than us, too. They can sit down and have some tough conversations,” Brown says. “I hate that whole myth that our teenagers are only concerned about social media and not engaged.  It’s just not true.

“We have to stop thinking that our kids can’t do certain things because of their age,” Brown continues. “As I said in my keynote today, a lot of people don’t realize that Dr. [Martin Luther] King was the voice of the movement, but the muscle were kids as young as five all the way up through college who made things move and happen. The young folks were much more fearless. If it wasn’t for these young folks, some of the things that were passed and the efforts of King would not have happened.”