In an effort to boost African American student achievement and involvement, REAP, Inc., a youth development organization, hosted Challenge 2006, a day-long event with workshops, speakers and a panel discussion featuring a variety of successful African American professionals.
The voluntary, second annual African American student conference was held for students at Grant High School on Nov. 9 — a day when students at the school had the option of staying home.
"You learn something new from every single one of (the panelists)," said senior Jesse Pipkin-Cade, who changed his future plans after attending last year's conference. "(The last conference) really changed my whole mindset."
He said that, while more Black students attended this year than last, he felt bad that some of the African American student population at Grant did not attend. Even so, hundreds packed the halls for workshops, speakers and the panel discussion.
REAP Program Director Mark Jackson said the results from the organization's activity at Grant and other area schools is remarkable (the organization also sponsors programs at Franklin, David Douglas and Fir Ridge high schools). More African American students are taking active roles in student government, advanced placement courses and the newly created Black Studies Class, a REAP program in association with Portland State University's Black Studies Department. The class is tailored toward African American students.
Instead of focusing on the Civil Rights Movement and slavery, Jackson said the class highlights positive achievement by African Americans in history.
"I don't want to discount the civil rights movement," said Jackson, adding that teaching positive aspects of Black history reinforces a more positive self-image in Blacks.
Vice-principal Kim Patterson said part of the reason the annual conference and ongoing activities sponsored by REAP have been so successful is because the organization works inside the school. She said she has worked with many outside organizations, but never felt a real rapport — until now.
While it could have been easy not to address the fact that Blacks had made up a sliver of advanced placement students (5 percent), 50 percent were falling behind the academic curve (with grade point averages below 2.0) and made up a majority of discipline referrals, the school decided to take a more proactive approach, she said.
With her own children being mixed-race, Patterson said she didn't want to see them being some of the only students of color in advanced-placement courses. Since implementing the program, all that has changed at a school where only about 25 percent of the student population is African American.
"For kids who've been here since their freshman year, there has been a measurable difference," she said.
During the panel discussion with about 19 Black professionals, many students expressed both concern and excitement about their future. REAP brought in panelists from across the spectrum — including a circuit court judge, a surgeon, a television news anchor and a manager from the Trail Blazers — who offered advice, anecdotes and answers about succeeding as an African American.
Jackson opened the discussion with the question, "How do I not be intimidated in a setting where I am the only Black person?"
Panelists agreed that it is a situation African American students should get used to if they decide to stay in Portland.
Ken Boddie, television news anchor for KOIN 6, said he was often the only African American in both his classes and at work. He said he was able to use it to his advantage because "they remember the Black guy" on television.
Many panelists said learning to speak proper English was essential for survival in the business world. Another similar concern among the students was that, while many felt no overt racism — a show of hands indicated positive experiences with a school that has a majority of White teachers — a culture of prejudice still exists.
Junior Antoinette Myer said some teachers were surprised at the number of books she read, relating a comment from another student who said teachers and students corrected him when stumbling over words — when White or Hispanic students stumbled over those same words. The prejudices and assumptions the students are experiencing at school were similar to situations many panelists had also endured. Deangeloa Wells, human resources director at Portland General Electric, said racial assumptions and stereotypes "happen today in corporate America."
Many students said the opportunity provided by the conference was essential for a strong community.
"People from every color learned something here today," Myers said.
To learn more about the programs REAP, Inc. has to offer, visit the Web site www.reapusa.org.