“I was always afraid of being a leader,” wrote one student in his or her review of the R.E.A.C.H. Summit. “It was always something I used to say, ‘No, I am not a leader.’ But today, I am saying proudly, ‘I am a leader,’ because now I know the world needs a leader.”

Feedback can’t get much better than that for a summit aimed at strengthening leadership skills.

As part of the inaugural R.E.A.C.H. (Realizing Equity and Cultivating Hope) Summit, 31 students from 15 high schools across the Twin Cities metro gathered at St. Thomas on Sept. 12 to engage in dialogue. The students discussed hotly contested issues, learned how they can participate in social justice, and networked with the St. Thomas community and one another.

“I thought it essential to help frame St. Thomas as a place where these conversations are not only possible, but encouraged,” wrote Teron Buford, assistant director of admissions and coordinator of multicultural recruitment, in an email about the summit.

Topics that matter and many perspectives

Buford, who spearheaded the organization of the summit, emphasized that the event was intended as a way for St. Thomas to be present locally, particularly to communities of color. He said the organizers made sure students had a voice in what the summit focused on.

Buford reached out to counselors in schools across St. Paul and Minneapolis to recommend students who are advocates or allies to social justice issues. As part of the application process, students were asked what sort of topics they wanted to discuss. In addition to two panels on policing in communities of color (the most heavily requested topic), R.E.A.C.H. also included panels on race, equity and economics; immigration; LGBTQ+ and gender equity; and a group activity on intersectionality.

“I think the topics of race and equity trouble the world today,” said Malcolm Lawson, a senior at Park Center Senior High School. “I see and experience it on an everyday basis. It was important to me to meet my peers – those who do and don’t feel the same way I do – and come up with ideas on what can be done and what is being done.”

Lena Gardner, a Black Lives Matter Minneapolis organizer, served as the keynote speaker.

“We wanted someone who was an activist in the community who did social justice work, who would relate to the students, who the students could relate to,” said English professor Kanishka Chowdhury, who served on the planning committee and was part of the Race, Equity and Economics panel. “That activist work is not easy, but there are ways to do it and she offered some very practical ways for people to get involved.”

Networking with peers also was a focal point for the summit.

“You get to meet other students who you really wouldn’t know or interact with,” said Melisa Robles-Olivar, a junior at Southwest High School. “You have more networking with students your age.”

Ruweida Sheikh-Mohamed, a senior at Harding Senior High School, said meeting new people pushed her outside her comfort zone but, as a result, she met “some beautiful people.”

Chowdhury said that sense of connection is important.

“You’re not alone. There are a lot of other people out there doing the same kind of things,” Chowdhury said.

Interacting with people who come from different backgrounds also emphasized how vital it is to consider different perspectives.

“You just can’t judge what you think you see,” Lawson said of what he learned at the summit. “You have to understand everyone’s side and situation before you come to a conclusion.”

Collin Robinson, a sophomore at Southwest High School, said hearing perspectives he normally didn’t have access to was “eye-opening.”

“When (Tanya Gladney) talked about police and being an African-American, it kind of enlightened me,” Robinson said of the St. Thomas Sociology and Criminal Justice Department professor, who has done work with local law enforcement and the FBI. “When I watch videos about police, it’s always white men or men. … Her perspectives, her life on policing, (was) one of the biggest things I got out of the summit. It was astounding the way she spoke about it and the way her life played out.”

Impact and success

One of the hopes of the R.E.A.C.H. planning committee was that the students would take these lessons and skills back to their communities – which certainly seems to be the case so far.

“Specifically, I can take the new perspectives of people back,” said Robinson who is a leader of Dare 2 Be Real, a group that focuses on racial equality and leadership, part of Student Union and plays football. “With that knowledge and information, I can be a more positive leader.”

Buford said he’s already heard from schools asking him to come to their schools. Robles-Olivar said other students at her school are wondering when the next R.E.A.C.H. Summit will be.

The excitement and energy the students brought to campus was noted by the St. Thomas community members who attended the summit.

“They were so excited to know they were a part of something bigger than themselves and that this was only the beginning,” said Dr. Artika Tyner, interim officer for diversity and inclusion, who was part of the planning committee. “To think about, ‘How do I not only say I’m from a diverse background, but how do I leverage my diversity to serve marginal populations? To the lift the voice of the voiceless?’ In a practical way it was very empowering for the students.”

That level of enthusiasm also served as a measurement of success for the summit: Panels ran long, and students stayed on campus long after the summit ended, watching a St. Thomas football game. The main “complaint” on the evaluations? They wanted more: longer sessions, more topics and more students to discuss with.

“The more opinions and options and topics you have that people care about, the more learning you will get from it,” Robles-Olivar said.

Tyner described the R.E.A.C.H. Summit as a “resounding success” and said she couldn’t wait for the next one.

“(Opportunities like this) make St. Thomas not just an academic institution, but a place where (community members) can come, think, strategize and build bridges. We’re making St. Thomas a home away from home,” Tyner said. “I think the summit really did that.”

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