Urban students develop leadership skills, confidence, and vision at the B of A Student Leader's Summit

Urban students develop leadership skills, confidence, and vision at the B of A Student Leader's Summit
Nadia, Jada, Jackson, Cyrus, and Jose join together for change.

This is the companion blog to the earlier blog posted today, B of A Student Leaders push for reform.

What makes a good leader? How can students be encouraged to contribute and become participatory citizens? According to John Kennedy, “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” That’s the impression the student leaders had after participating in the Bank of America Student Leadership Summit (“Summit”) in Washington D.C. this July. Their spirit and enthusiasm was contagious. In fact, one group was so passionate that the students insisted that we review the agenda (speakers and all), hour by hour.

I’m not going to do that here, but below are highlights of the experiences of the 2014 Chicago Student Leaders, Cyrus Goines, Nadia Ferrer, Jada Smith (Boys & Girls Club of Chicago) and Jose Sarrano and Jackson Schultz (Working in the Schools):

On connecting with other student leaders nationwide who share their interest in social change:
Nadia was thrilled because “you meet lots of people different than you, but [they] understand you.” According to Jackson, everyone “clicked, like in ‘Revenge of the Nerds.’ Cyrus took a longer view: “they are different than you but want to make similar changes; later in life, we can collaborate.”

On being poor in America: Jada remembered playing LIFTopolis, a simulation designed to convey the bureaucratic and governmental challenges that poor families face negotiating the welfare system. Jada’s assigned role: “I was on minimum wage. My husband was on disability. He got fired from his job. We needed health insurance and housing, but we couldn’t find housing because of our low credit score and we didn’t qualify for insurance.” Even though it was a simulation, Jada was stressed: “I felt like I was digging myself out of a hole and did not know which way was up.”

On identifying stakeholders, the real problem, and policy:
The Student Leaders had interesting takes on meeting with congressional representatives Danny Davis and Bobby Rush. They found Rush very open to dialogue and questions. Why wasn’t education a priority to Rush? Violence trumped education. As Jose commented, “safety, gang, this is the equation for why schools are being closed…and why education is not important.” The Student Leaders realized that gang membership is more attractive to some students than school. According to Jose, certain children “have nobody to look up to, gang members have money; these kids don’t know what to do. If [they] can’t afford housing (forget about land ownership) and food, what’s the point of education?”

On poor leaders and the deadlock in Washington: These students were ready to jump in and make changes. They were tired of politicians who dug their heels in and refused to collaborate. Jose felt that future leaders would be “more people like us, problem solvers.” Indifference was a central problem. “More people need to care about politics,” Jackson maintained. “Nobody cares.” After founding a club at school, Jackson was disturbed to discover that some classmates didn’t really think about their political affiliation. When he asked a fellow student why she was a Republican, she responded: “My dad is a Republican.”

On lessons learned from inspirational speaker and author, Wes Moore:
Google him. He’s worth studying. Briefly, Moore wrote The Other Wes Moore, the story of two men with the same name (not related) who lived two blocks away. Both were troubled kids raised by single moms. One Wes Moore landed in prison, while the Author Wes Moore was supported by family and changed his behavior. Moore’s message hit home to the students: “Potential is universal and opportunity is not.” Nadia advises others to go “after opportunity. It doesn’t just come to you. You have to go out and look for it.” The second takeaway from Moore’s talk: high expectations are important. Unfortunately, the troubled Wes Moore lived up to the negative expectations society had of him.

Summing it up: The Summit left an extraordinary impact on the students. In addition to the speakers mentioned, others, like Jaureese Gaines and Maria Shriver, spoke. Going straight from 7 am until 10 pm that week, the students held many discussions, participated in a service learning activity, and made trips to the Monuments and the Mall. The level of trust must have been pretty high because at the closing party one student was brave enough to come out. One of the Student Leaders even commented that in the future, more companies should be partnered with B of A.

As one who was given similar opportunities in high school, I’m optimistic that the tangibles and intangibles of the Student Leaders program will leave a lasting imprint on the hearts of these students. Jose emphasized that the best thing about meeting the other student leaders was knowing that there are other people who also care…these kids had passion.” Nadia’s summation would make any teacher proud: “Even though we got here individually, we are now a community of learners.”

Bank of America is celebrating its 10th anniversary of the Student Leaders Program. Hats off to its unprecedented efforts fostering youth and leadership!

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