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‘It’s about empowerment’: Students of color benefit from educational summer camp at SOU – Ashland News

About 50 people take part in the week-long Black Youth Summer Institute

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

Dr. Charlene Williams, the first black superintendent of the Oregon Department of Education, on Sunday evening appealed to students of color in southern Oregon for pride and perseverance.

“We are descendants of kings, queens, warriors and scholars. We are resilient through the trials and tribulations of our past, but our history is not just one of struggle, but one of excellence. … You are the creators of your own destiny and have the ability to shape the world around you,” Williams said.

About 50 students gathered in the Rogue River Room at Southern Oregon University on Sunday evening. Their families and a handful of educators sat with them for the ceremonial start of the Black Youth Summer Institute, a weeklong educational summer camp organized by the Black Southern Oregon Alliance.

Williams emphasized that the “beautiful color and texture” of diversity in Oregon’s education system currently consists of far more students of color than teachers.

Dr. Charlene Williams, Oregon Department of Education Superintendent, spoke to students participating in the Black Youth Summer Institute at SOU via Zoom. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Deb Lange, speaking after Williams, said that as a teacher of color in Oregon, her students greeted her with “eyes so big,” she said, cupping their hands around their eyes. Their eyes were even bigger when she became a principal. Now, as an assistant superintendent at ODE, Lange encouraged her listeners to use the tools at their disposal and make the most of the moment before them.

“This room is brimming with the potential to change the world,” she said.

After the speeches, parents said their goodbyes and the students were escorted to the SOU dorms. Some of the program organizers and parents took a moment to reflect on the significance of the program.

SOU President Rick Bailey welcomes black students attending the Black Youth Summer Institute on the SOU campus. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Staci Buchwald’s daughter told her she enjoyed the freedom to learn in the company of others who look like her.

“She told me she didn’t have to worry about whether anyone would think she was smart while she was here,” she said.

Sessceal Reynolds nodded, expressing her joy at the easier connections and opportunities her 14-year-old son spoke of.

“Our children are rarely told they are brilliant,” she said.

During a recent class at school on African American history, her son struggled with “big feelings” about being the only student of color in the class.

The Black Youth Summer Institute is a residential camp where Black students completing grades 7-12 can participate in a variety of classes, lectures, cultural events, and recreational activities in a college setting. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Marvin Woodard, the program’s director, said students that age don’t get enough support or encouragement. As of 2021, the camp for 12- to 19-year-olds is still growing, and word is spreading among isolated students of color across Oregon. Parents sometimes reach out months before the program starts to make sure their students have a spot.

The grant-funded program hopes to secure enough funding to sustain itself and continue to grow to meet demand while remaining free to students. This year, Woodard said students will be able to take advantage of classes ranging from drone operation and math to “telling your story” through writing or creating podcasts.

DL Richardson holds up a T-shirt that students will receive as part of the 2024 Black Youth Summer Institute at SOU. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

The association with the Black Southern Oregon Alliance and its other programs is also a boon for parents, Woodard said. No parent is excluded. White parents of black children feel free to seek and receive support to be the best they can for their children. Parents and group organizers meet regularly to explore ways the Oregon School District can better serve these students and support each other.

Dr. Larry Gibbs said that as one of three black professors at SOU, he was eager to attend the camp to provide a visual model of what is possible for these students.

“Ultimately, it’s about empowerment,” he said.

To support the Black Youth Summer Institute or learn more about the Black Southern Oregon Alliance, visit their website .

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at [email protected].