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African American Youth Leadership Conference celebrates 25 years empowering kids 

DiverseCity

As a mother of three teenagers of color, one of my biggest challenges is to choose the right schools and leadership opportunities to place my children on the path toward professional success. It’s a journey.

My children have grown up in Colorado Springs, a beautiful city full of great educational opportunities — for some. But it is hard to explain to my kids why there are so few people of color here in academia, professional and leadership positions. Of course there are a few scattered here and there, but therein lies the problem: This sparse representation means little ones internalize a narrative that certain positions are only available to exceptions. And it works to stifle dreams.

Receiving an education that will prepare our children to compete globally with their peers has become the civil rights movement of our time. The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs reported that of the 46 African-American students who enrolled in UCCS in 2011 seeking a bachelor’s degree, just 14 graduated within six years. Meanwhile, a 2013 study on job growth conducted by Georgetown University, estimated that 74 percent of Colorado jobs will require a post-secondary degree by 2020.

I have done my best to provide my kids with an education that was not dictated by our circumstances, but along the way, I’ve had to help them navigate a covert assault on their identity: In their lessons, all of the people that look like them are presented in chains or as enemies of the state. As a child in school, I also remember brief lessons (sometimes a paragraph long) about black Americans, predominantly centered on slavery and the Underground Railroad. And I learned virtually nothing about African history. Is that really the limit of contributions by blacks? Really?

What about Mansa Musa, sultan of the West African Mali Empire, whose inconceivable wealth may never have been duplicated? Or inventor Garrett Morgan, who gave us the streetlight and created an early model of what would become the World War II gas mask? 
One Springs resident, Dr. Ron Wynn has long sought a better way. Wynn, whose doctorate is in educational leadership, was a successful principal, vice principal, and administrator in Colorado Springs School District 11. But over 25 years ago, he decided he wanted to create something to uplift young African-Americans in our community. “We wanted to teach kids about leadership. A lot of times young people have no direction, nothing to do,” he says.

Back in 1992, he founded The African American Youth Leadership Conference, and packed the Hillside Community Center to capacity with 175 students for the first conference. Initially, focused on providing more leadership engagement opportunities for black males, AAYLC’s vision has grown and so has its membership. It now inspires the dreams of students (grades 6 through 12) and parents all across the state, from every racial background.

This Saturday, March 10, marks the 25th conference. Between 350 and 500 students are expected to attend the event at Colorado College. Wynn and his team are encouraging students to “dream big” (this year’s theme). The vibrant conference schedule, made possible by educators from around the state, includes black history lessons, hands-on science experiments, broadcast journalism exposure, and high-energy dance performances.

Kids will leave feeling inspired in their identities. Take it from my 17-year-old, who attended the conference last year, and says, “It’s interactive, you can tell the teachers are passionate about what they’re doing.”

The conference also offers workshops to parents to help them assist their kids in bridging the gap from high school to college.

But this year AAYLC is looking to carry its passion beyond the conference. While it’s still in the planning stages, AAYLC is working in partnership with the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region to offer annual summer camp opportunities for local kids who could not otherwise afford to go.

Wynn has also teamed with other top local educators to launch a series at PPCC (it began Feb. 27) that aims to increase rates of registration and retention for students of color at the collegiate level as well as to increase internship programs for students who aren’t college-bound.

We should all be grateful for resources like AAYLC that inspire and develop the dreams of our young people. Keep on, keepin’ on.

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