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Bruce Poinsette of The Skanner News
Published: 16 November 2011

Wade Nkrumah and Inger McDowell

In recent years, as Portland has seen the loss of organizations for youth of color, Black Student Unions have taken on greater importance in instilling cultural awareness and encouraging young people to be leaders.

"When you lose youth oriented groups and initiatives those losses have impact," says Madison High School BSU co-adviser Wade Nkrumah. "When you have something to fill the void it is inspiring and hopeful."

In an effort to foster youth-led initiatives, the Urban League of Portland sponsors a BSU Leadership Summit Saturday, Nov. 19, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Grant High School. The event will also be open to Latino Club students.

Coordinators say inviting both groups of young people to participate is important because African American and Latino students face similar challenges academically. They say it will also give all the students a chance to network.

"It's the first time anything like this has happened in the region," says Urban League Civic Engagement Manager Inger McDowell.

She says the goal of the event is for youth to produce their own initiatives to improve education and get more involved in community service.

According to McDowell, the idea grew from the previous Legislative Action Day in Salem, where students and community members interacted with legislators on issues that affected the Black community. Students from Portland area schools, including Grant, Franklin, Cleveland and Jefferson participated.

Since then, the Urban League, BSU advisers and students from Portland high schools have sought to coordinate the upcoming Leadership Summit.

"This is not school sponsored," says Grant High BSU Co-adviser Margarett Peoples. "This came from students saying they wanted to learn this skill."

Coordinators expect a turnout between 60 to 75 students, including confirmed participants from Grant, Cleveland, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Roosevelt high schools.

The summit features youth led leadership activities, such as having the students develop mission statements for their schools, and a guest presentation from the Multnomah County Youth Commission.

It will also focus on the importance of culture.

"We want them to appreciate their culture and where they came from in a meaningful and respectful way," says McDowell.

The keynote speaker is Office of Economic and Business Equity Deputy Director Cyreena Boston Ashby. Ashby is expected to share the story of her leadership journey with students.

Ashby grew up in Portland and worked on grassroots projects that addressed issues like gang violence and the availability of emergency services. She graduated from Spelman College and went on to hold the title of Constituency Director for the Democratic Party of Oregon.

Nkrumah thinks it's important that the students see leaders like Ashby.

"I can't underscore enough the importance and impact of a conference like this," he says. "We have Black professionals from the community who are leaders, addressing students who really need to see Black people in leadership positions. It helps them believe they can be leaders at their schools."

He says this is especially important for students who attend schools where Blacks aren't the majority, such as Madison. Nkrumah proudly says out of his BSU's core of 26 students, he has 15 who are committed to coming to the summit on Saturday.

Coordinators see this as an event that will ultimately inspire students to be leaders in their schools. They stress the importance of the youth being the drivers of the summit.

"Too often the youth are not given an opportunity to learn for themselves and make some mistakes," says McDowell. "This is youth led, adult assisted."

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