Madison-area students laid out some pretty dismal statistics on racial disparities in Dane County as they kicked off the 2016 Conference on Racial Disparities in Dane County Education, a day of contemplation, discussion, strategizing, and action. Some of the facts that they presented included:

◆ Seventy-five percent of black children in Madison are in poverty, compared to 5 percent of white children.
◆ Black 8th graders are almost 5 times less likely to be proficient in math than white 8th graders.
◆ ACT scores are a full six points lower for black students than for white students.
◆ Black children living in Dane County are 13.7 percent more likely to be born into poverty than white children.

Racial disparities in Wisconsin schools are among the worst in the nation and, with that in mind, about 150 students and school staff members from various schools gathered at Middleton’s Hilton Garden Inn on April 8 to talk frankly about race and to brainstorm solutions. The Middleton High School Student Voice Union hosted the conference. This group strives to understand diversity by promoting social justice and fostering an appreciation for equity at Middleton High School. They had spent months researching and compiling data to present at the conference.

“Look out around here. This is pretty amazing. Everything you’re seeing here today has been a student-led effort,” conference keynote speaker Percy Brown Jr. told Madison365.

A lifelong Madison south sider, Brown is the director of Equity and Student Achievement in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. He spoke to the students about African-American history, about his own history, and about the power they have if they become active in their schools and their communities.

“It’s cool that we are all getting together today to talk about these issues, but where is the action to change these racial disparities not only in our community but across the country?” Brown asked the students. “I’m going to tell you, the action is in each and every one of you. I’m not sure if my generation can do it, and I’m pretty sure that the generation before me does not have the power or the wherewithal to make it happen. It’s up to you. There’s something about this generation here that has the power to change things.”

Students and school staff members from various schools gathered at Middleton's Hilton Garden Inn on April 8 to talk frankly about race and to brainstorm solutions to racial disparities.
Students and school staff members from various schools gathered at Middleton’s Hilton Garden Inn on April 8 to talk frankly about race and to brainstorm solutions to racial disparities.

Brown told the students about how he got to the point he is at today.

“I’m a 42-year-old black man that was born in Madison. I’m about to start writing my dissertation so I can become Dr. Brown. I’ve got my master’s degree, I’m a district-level administrator in Middleton, I’m a part-time professor at Edgewood College, and I’m also a national consultant,” Brown told the students. “But when I graduated from West High School in 1992, I had a 1.97 grade-point average. I didn’t have a relationship with one staff person in my high school.

“There weren’t any staff that saw any potential in me,” he added. “The only reason that I just listed you all my credentials and things I have going on is because I shouldn’t have been a 1.97 [GPA] student when I graduated from high school because obviously I have some talent if I’m about to become Dr. Brown. Why didn’t the staff see that in me and some of my other African-American peers?”

Students came to the conference from Madison high schools – East, Memorial, and LaFollette — along with Sun Prairie, Verona, and Middleton high schools. They were eager to share their experiences with racism, with school, and with life.

Panelists of speakers started a conversation with the young people about the causes and solutions to racial disparities. These panelists included Juan Alvarez-Zavala, a student at Verona High; JoAnne Brown, a multicultural student coordinator at Memorial High; Antonio Hoye, a family and community liaison at Middleton High; Laura Love, director of secondary education at Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District; John Milton, minority services coordinator at La Follette High; Dianna Murray, a student at West High; Aronn Peterson, multicultural services coordinator at East High; Alondra Quechol, student at Madison College; Lillian Vang, student at Sun Prairie High; and Amanda Zhang, a student at Madison West.
In the afternoon, the students participated in breakout sessions that discussed racial disparities with students from other schools and brainstormed solutions to lessen those disparities.

Brown encouraged the students to not believe everything they see and hear and to be active in seeking out truths.

“When you got to school every day and read books where you don’t see yourself, that’s a way to keep you down,” Brown said. “But you’re in an age of information. You’ve got a computer in your hand. Don’t take everything in the text books as truth. You can learn about Malcolm X. You can learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Learn the truth about Dr. King. MLK wasn’t this happy-go-lucky ‘I Have a Dream’ dude … he was revolutionary!” Brown added. “Learn about Marcus Garvey. Learn about Cesar Chavez. Learn about the School of Americas in Latin America and how the United States of America has been pimping Latin America and Mexico and exploiting them.”

Students left the conference with specific ideas to take back to their own schools.

“I really appreciate that all of you are here today,” Brown said. “You all are the change agents of the future.”