Eleven high school students were recognized at the Ostapenko Center’s youth, race, and equality conference March 3 for their advocacy of social justice. They are pictured with Noah LaClair, a senior social work major who is interning with the center.

Approximately 200 students from eight high schools throughout Western New York gathered on the Niagara University campus March 3, 2020, to participate in “Sacred Conversations,” the third annual youth, race, and equality conference hosted by the university’s Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko Center for Race, Equality, and Mission. The conference gave the participating students opportunities to address local and national issues of race and engage in dialogue about race and equity, and helped them realize the potential they have to create change through advocacy and collective action.

The students were welcomed by members of the Ostapenko Center and the Rev. Aidan Rooney, C.M., Niagara’s vice president for mission integration, before breaking out into workshops that discussed the role race plays in future goal-setting, how race sometimes creates an unequal playing field, and how justice movements can help overcome marginalization and oppression in our communities. Workshops were led by Niagara University students.

Following the breakout sessions, the students enjoyed lunch in the Russell J. Salvatore Dining Commons and had opportunities to share their reflections of the day during two student panels where participants discussed their personal efforts to advocate for change in their schools and the challenges they faced in doing so. They also heard from 15-year-old Ilyas Khan of City Honors School, founder of the Western New York Youth Climate Council and organizer of the inaugural Buffalo Youth Climate Strike, which brought some 40 students to Buffalo City Hall on March 15, 2019, to stand in solidarity with an estimated 1.4 million from more than 120 countries around the world in the International Youth Climate Strike.

“The skewed relationship between environmental hazards and their impact on predominantly people of color is called environmental racism,” he said. “You may think that climate change is an equal opportunity crisis, but climate change is not the same for everyone. Studies have shown that developing nations will be hit hardest. Climate justice is the solution. The idea of climate justice seeks to bring justice to the planet and people, especially our frontline communities, putting an end to environmental racism, classism, and ending the exploitation of our planet.”

Khan urged his peers to join him in his environmental activism to “show the people in power what the youth of Western New York are capable of.”  

“We have to show them that we want this, show them that we need this, and show them that we do care, and refuse to be left out of the conversation,” he said.

An awards ceremony, during which 11 students, chosen by their schools, were recognized for their efforts as social change-agents, remarks by Ostapenko scholar Carmen Timmons and Niagara provost Dr. Timothy Ireland, and a closing activity that reinforced the lessons learned during the day rounded out the event.