Above: Gardena High junior Christian Thurman talks proudly with Wes Hall about his career plans before 300 of his peers.
More than 300 students from nearly two dozen schools came together Saturday as part of the fifth annual Young Men of Color conference – an event designed to inspire excellence and spur educational empowerment.
“These young men are here because we need to celebrate all young men of color,” said Dr. Brenda Manuel, administrator of the District’s Student Unit, part of Access, Equity and Acceleration in the Division of Instruction, which played a key role in organizing the conference. “We have brought a lot of people together – mentors, leaders, police officers and people in the community – to help these young men understand how talented they are and the true potential they have.”
Manuel co-founded The Village Movement, a school-based mentorship program that is linked to the annual conference, with Wes Hall, an educational consultant and CEO of the Institute for Student Empowerment.
“When you live in America, you may see the American Dream and want the American Dream, but you may not have the tools and guidance you need to get there,” Hall said. “These young men are brilliant young men. With the right guidance, they will turn from being ‘at-risk’ youth into ‘at-promise’ youth.”
Hall served as the emcee for the day’s main events, which included words of inspiration from School Board Vice President Nick Melvoin and other leaders.
“The first and often overlooked step in being a leader is showing up, and these students are all here on a Saturday morning when they don’t have to be,” Melvoin said. “We are here to honor these young men and help them understand that it is the little things – like tying a necktie, shaking a hand and making their beds in the morning – that are the first and most significant steps on the road to leadership.”
Los Angeles School Police Chief Steve Zipperman and a dozen members of his department were also on hand to provide support.
“These students made a conscientious choice to be here, because they have a vision for what they want their lives to be,” Zipperman said. “We are here to help them bring that vision to life. We want them to know they matter. Today they are going to hear new ideas and receive inspiration and guidance from a variety of mentors who will help keep them moving in the right direction.”
Taking initiative one step at a time was a theme that ran through the day’s activities.
“We are here to help you, but we are asking you to meet us halfway,” Hall told the students.
Hall asked each of the students who were holding a pen to raise them high in the air.
Among the couple dozen students to hold their pens aloft was Antwone Usher, a sixth-grader from the Boys Academic Leadership Academy. Hall invited the youth onstage to explain why he was taking notes about the conference.
“You should have your pen in your hand when someone is trying to tell you something important that will affect your future,” Usher said. “It’s up to you if you are going to follow their advice and do what you need to do.”
The keynote address was delivered by Ronald Reeves, head of global learning and development for the American International Group Inc. He shared his story of becoming a journalist and encouraged his audience to ask questions everywhere they go.
“Ask every person you meet to tell you about his life journey and his career journey,” he said. “They will always be happy to tell you their stories, and you will be amazed at what you learn, and it will help you focus. If you start practicing now on focusing, then you will have a sharper focus in your college years and even sharper during your career.”
Participants also attended breakout sessions with topics that included networking, financial management and using science and math to spark creativity. Enroute to the workshops, students reflected on messages they heard during the morning session.
“The board member said that the first step in becoming a leader is showing up,” said Gardena High junior Christian Thurman. “That’s why we’re here. We are here because we are showing dedication. A lot of kids from our school were supposed to come. Not everyone showed up, but we did.”
Gardena High senior Derion Bruton said he was honored to have been invited to participate in the conference.
“These people are here because they know we can do well in school and that we can go a long way in life,” he said. “We can make a change. We can take what we learn today and take it back to our school and help make it a better place.”
Manuel said that the conference and the associated Village Movement are not just about supporting students who are at risk.
“So many of these students are already showing signs of true leaders,” she said. “With our help, they can become role models for their peers and plant the seeds for new generations of leaders in their schools and their communities.”