Nearly 200 high school students from eight local school districts gathered on the Niagara University campus April 10, 2019, to address local and national issues of race. “Sacred Conversations: Youth, Race, and Equality Conference,” hosted by Niagara University’s Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko Center for Race, Equality & Mission also encouraged conversation among the youth on equality and mission.
Students heard from several speakers during the daylong event, including the Rev. James Maher, C.M., Niagara University president, Dr. Timothy Ireland, provost, and students from Niagara University and Niagara Falls High School.
“Today we are here to learn about the different ways that young people can work towards social change and social and racial justice in their schools,” said Kaylyn Townsend, an NU senior who worked with the Ostapenko Center to help coordinate this event. “We know that young people are a powerful tool for social change. We want to encourage you to learn about new topics and engage in conversations you are usually left out of.”
“It is great to see so many of you here, to think about social justice issues, particularly the complicated issue of race internationally,” said Dr. Ireland. “There is a whole group of undergraduate and graduate students here today to help facilitate the conversations. You will have an opportunity to get a feeling of what college is like, and what Niagara University is like. I hope you walk away somehow changed from this experience.”
“One of my favorite pictures is of a massive group of people standing outside the Washington Monument, and the caption is ‘what can one person do?’” Father Maher said in his welcome following lunch. “Everyone thinks as individuals, yet when we put all of that energy and focus together, we can see what we can all do together. I want to encourage and thank you for your commitment to take on these challenging issues ... you give us great hope for the future.”
Niagara Falls High School students Jasiah Jackson and Carmen Timmens were invited to give speeches to inspire their peers as a part of the conference.
“Sacred is synonymous for words like holy, unthreatened, untouchable, but these conversations are and should be shared by everyone,” said Jackson. “These conversations are about race, gender, education, sexuality, and how all of these can intertwine. So why are they sacred, unthreatened, or untouchable? To me, it’s because these conversations affect and hurt everyday people, and people feel like there are no solutions to issues intertwined with them. … That is the furthest from the truth. Individuals throughout history have had these conversations, sparking change, bettering the lives of oppressed people.”
Workshop sessions held throughout the day included topics such as “Realistic Monopoly,” “The Social Identity Wheel,” and “More Than a Label: Stereotyping Awareness.” A video with reflections, a poem reading, and student awards rounded out the day.