Over break, Bellevue College hosted an event that was the first of its kind for Bellevue School District. “BOOM: Breaking Out Of the Margins” was a black and brown male youth summit that hosted a variety of workshops, panel discussions and activities.
Students attended from middle and high schools all over Bellevue and even a few from Seattle. Speakers at the event were mainly recruited through their community connections, or from Bellevue College.
BC President Dave Rule kicked off the event by emphasizing how important it was to him that the students “gain a sense of self-worth and identity.” He continued by expressing how honored he and BC as a whole were to host the event.
Michael Benitez, Jr., who is the dean of diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer of the University of Puget Sound, gave the keynote speech, in which he shared how he overcame his life on the streets of the Bronx and being incarcerated three times before he was 15 by rising past the expectations of where he grew up. “Two years ago I was the youngest chief diversity officer in higher education in the nation. Coming out of Washington Heights. I couldn’t even believe it. I had to rely on people to tell me ‘Own it, own it, own it, it’s okay to be brilliant,’” said Benitez.
“I ask you today to honor yourself,” he continued. “Put aside perceptions. Put aside what people think. Put aside the stereotyped negativity of other people’s unconscious bias.”
The daylong event was broken up into a few different parts. In the first half of the day, both middle and high school students were randomly assigned to a variety of workshops. These dealt with topics ranging from masculinity to historical racism, to learning to express oneself through art.
The panelists focused on their experiences as people of color and as males, as well as on empowering the youth participants. The speakers stressed that the students might see their peers making decisions that don’t put a big emphasis on their future, and that this can make it difficult to stay focused on personal interests.
Alex Yockey, who is a junior at Sammamish High School, has attended at least two other similar conferences, and finds them very inspiring. “Sometimes it feels like you don’t really have anybody looking out for you, as a person of color,” shared Yockey, “There’s a lot more help available than we think at the BC school district.”
Aaron Reader, the director of Multicultural Services at BC said he sees this as a great opportunity to reach out as a mentor. He explained that many students really just need someone to talk to when things start going wrong in their lives or when they are facing roadblocks they don’t know how to deal with. This mentorship opportunity was important to students like Yockey, who said these conferences help students know that there is someone to “look out for you and to look out for your interests.”
One main purpose of the event was to ensure that the students know that they are worth the effort and that they are important. By taking the time to teach and inspire the youth, the speakers and volunteers hoped to encourage the students to believe in themselves.
“We hope that you do get inspired,” said Shomari Jones, graduation success leader for the Bellevue School District, “Take something you’ve learned today back with you to your school so we can grow as a community, not just your own personal community, but as a school community.”