Student organizers hope to make Mountain West Diversity Conference an annual event | VailDaily.com

Student organizers hope to make Mountain West Diversity Conference an annual event

Laura Bell
Special to the Daily

GYPSUM — Twenty-five years ago, then-Cherry Creek social studies teacher Janet Sammons had a dream of uniting students from other schools so they could communicate about the issues they had in common.

"By the time you reach high school, you are in a competitive environment, whether it is in school sports, debate or in general," she said.

"But they (students) are all faced with some of the same issues: cliques, bullying kids of color, sexual orientation was just starting and there was a secret club that met with a counselor. It was hard to come out to anyone or at school."

Sammons wanted to gather those students and also help break the entitlement image that Cherry Creek had by showing other students that Cherry Creek kids had the same problems.

"We got a call from other schools wanting to participate, which is how it all began," Sammons said.

That first Cherry Creek Diversity Conference blossomed into the nonprofit organization Youth Celebrate Diversity, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in Castle Pines in February 2018.

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Acceptance and inclusion

Last month, approximately 150 high school students from Eagle County, Steamboat Springs, Grand Junction and Fruita met for the inaugural Mountain West Diversity Conference. The event, which was planned and hosted by Eagle Valley High School students and supported by Youth Celebrate Diversity, was almost a year in the making and was the first of its kind in this part of the state.

Eagle Valley juniors Alondra Escobar, Kalista Farmer and Jamie Rawlings were integral in bringing the event to the valley, and prior to the start of the conference, they were eager to discuss what they hoped their fellow students would gain from the event.

"So many kids from the Western Slope had to cancel going to (the Cherry Creek Diversity Conference) due to the winter weather, we wanted to bring it here, and we are hoping that after we graduate, the legacy that we've started will continue," Rawlings said. "We want to celebrate inclusion and acceptance so that all students feel like they belong."

"We met with our high school advisor at the end of last year to see if we could bring this cool experience to our valley to show kids that we care about diversity," Escobar said.

The trio — part of the student executive committee, led by Eagle Valley High School language arts teacher Hannah Shapiro — gave the opening remarks before students went to their choice of one of several workshops.

"We want everyone to have big takeaways," Farmer said. "I hope we have an environment inclusive to everyone so that one person's goals are another person's goals because we are a group."

Back of the bus

Keynote speaker Carlotta Walls LaNier, a member of The Little Rock Nine, the nine African-American students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, received a standing ovation following her emotional speech.

LaNier spoke without bitterness as she recalled injustices she endured as a child.

"I was not allowed to check books out of the public library; I had to sit in the balcony of the movie theater," she said. "I was made to ride in the back of the bus. I grew up with people thinking I was a second-class citizen.

"My parents told me I wasn't and that I could do anything. They told me to get ready to walk through that door (of the high school). We had people calling us names, spitting on us, a neighbor wanting to lynch us. The National Guard was called in and each one of us had our own guard assigned to us to take us from class to class."

She encouraged students to "not tolerate racist jokes or comments, think about going into politics, public policy or teaching. Put yourself in a less comfortable environment. Take a gap year and travel. Meet other cultures. Read the New York Times and Washington Post editorials and find your moral center."

Eagle County Interim Superintendent Dr. Maggie Lopez left Cuba with her family in 1962. Her parents left their lavish lifestyle and everything behind so the children could grow up in a free country with opportunities. Lopez recalled the struggle to learn English and watched as her formerly prominent father took his first job as a dishwasher in Miami.

"In 1962, speaking Spanish was not OK. My mother never learned English, and my father had a very thick accent," she said.

Applying for grants and scholarships, Lopez went to college and continued to earn her Ph.D. over the course of many years while working full time. She then became a superintendent, which was her lifetime dream.

"Have perseverance, be resilient and hold onto your dreams," she told the students.

Workshops

The workshops students attended were varied, from a self-care workshop with yoga class with Kimber Howe, of the Western Eagle County Metropolitan Recreation District, to listening to Holocaust survivor Eric Cahn recount his story.

A panel from the Colorado Lawyers Committee Hate Crimes Education Task Force led an interactive workshop. The lawyers presented a case involving hate crimes. After the trial, small discussion groups of students became juries to discuss the issues presented and, with the assistance of an adult facilitator, reached a verdict. The group also discussed diversity in the community and the value of preventing the spread of racial slurs and hateful actions.

Other workshops included Character Counts: Not judging people, men and women; Breaking Down the Stereotypes: There is no racism problem in America; Challenging Inequities as Educators; Living as a Latino Today; Come Roll in My Shoes: A Day in the Life of Someone with a Disability; and Transgender and Beyond.

Each student attended two workshops. Following each workshop, there were breakout groups and discussions. The day ended with closing ceremonies and a performance by SF1, a drummer, music producer and actor.

Get involved

Students and adults from the Western Slope are invited to join the Executive Committee for the second annual Mountain West Diversity Conference, tentatively scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, at Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum. For more information, contact Marie Naumann at marie.naumann@eagleschools.net or Hannah Shapiro at hannah.shapiro@eagleschools.net or call 970-328-8960. For more information about the conference’s parent organization, Youth Celebrate Diversity, visit http://www.ycdiversity.org.