When the Wisconsin Leadership Summit presented by UW Credit Union reconvenes in person October 10 and 11 for the first time since 2019, it will include a special track designed especially for youth.
Perhaps more importantly, that track is being designed by the youth themselves.
Nearly 200 students from the Madison Metropolitan School District attended the 2019 Wisconsin Leadership Summit, billed by organizers as “the state’s premier professional development, networking and community-building event for leaders of color.” Those students attended sessions alongside adults, and school district officials expressed a desire to put together some youth-focused programming. Earlier this year, Superintendent Carlton Jenkins and Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Stanford-Taylor approached Henry Sanders, CEO of 365 Media, which plans and hosts the Summit.
“They were all over the idea,” Stanford-Taylor said.
The multicultural services coordinators from the city’s high schools have convened a group of student leaders, which has so far met twice to begin to map out what they’d like to see at the conference. Madison schools are expected to send more than 150 students to the conference, and neighboring districts are expected to send students as well.
“I feel like (adults) always say that they want to get students input and we put in what we want to say, but it doesn’t actually get done, it doesn’t get processed,” said Olivia Morgan, a senior at Vel Phillips Memorial High School. “Finally, we actually get to have a student-led conference for students, (and) the adults get to hear what we have to say as well.”
Morgan said students have more to say now than ever as schools and families emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They should actually be able to hear what we’re experiencing, personally,” Morgan said. “The COVID year definitely had a big impact on everybody’s mental health. So teachers have an expectation of what students kind of feel but they don’t actually have the reality of it. And I feel like this will be a good opportunity for them to fully understand what’s going on in our heads, in our mental space, what we’re doing and how we’re dealing with it.”
In an organizational meeting Tuesday, a half dozen students from several different high schools outlined a number of topics they’d like to see discussed at the conference, including restorative justice, mental health, teaching staff diversity and more.
“The students are now engaged in looking at kind of topical areas so that they can build out their tracks,” Stanford-Taylor said. “What we’re hoping to see is, alongside our Black and brown professionals, our kids have identified those things which give them voice, things that they’re concerned about in their world. And then to lay those out in such a fashion that we’ll be able to come in and support those ideas. They were told they can be student led, it can be adult led, but they get to make the decision about who does what. And then at some point during the conference, we want to take advantage of the adults who are in the space with us, and that they can intermingle.”
Stanford-Taylor said she hopes the students attend some of the adult sessions and vice versa. She added that the conference, slated for early October, will be a good way to start the school year.
“I think it’s a great kickoff. We have great expectations for the school year, we know that a lot of things have happened for our students in our families coming through this pandemic. And that has created some angst, some trauma, a lot of it we don’t even know, the extent of what our kids have been dealing with, or their families have been dealing with,” she said. “And you know, all of that comes to the school environment. And so you have to figure out ways to help them process. And this is a way among their peers, where there’s safety for them to feel safe to voice their concerns, but also to understand that caring adults want to hear what their concerns are.”
She said events like this can create a better learning environment, even if the activity involved isn’t strictly academic.
“We have to attend to certain things before we can get to academics,’ she said. “We have to be in a space where we’re able to engage in learning … We’re saying, ‘Tell us, because we’re the adults, we’re accustomed to delivering something. Tell us what it is that you need and what it looks like and feels like for you.’ We want to hear that. And (the students are) gladly embracing that.”
She said she hopes the partnership with 365 Media and the Wisconsin Leadership Summit becomes a foundation for further collaboration.
“I’m just excited. I’m excited for the partnership that (Wisconsin Leadership Summit organizers) were open to hearing what kids wanted to say and for kids to be actively engaged and to allow them to dictate what it is that they want to do in that space,” she said. “You don’t find partnerships like that every day. I’m very grateful for that. I think it’s the beginning of something great.”