In April, the University of Colorado Denver hosted the second annual Colorado Black Education Impact (BE!) Conference on the Auraria campus.

The conference brought together 300mlocal high school students, parents, educators, and community leaders to explore solutions regarding Colorado’s educational culture gap and to encourage group and individual ownership of our youth’s education and development.

The ongoing goal of the conference is to promote student engagement, elevate promising practices associated with enhancing the educational experience for our African American/black students, and contextually support academic success.

Community health and safety are inexorably linked to education, especially in a time when communities are questioning the social equity of our society. It’s critical that citizens and institutions take a close look at the role and responsibility we all play in creating a safe place to live, work, and learn.

At the core, creating a safe community for our students does not have anything to do with race, ethnicity or social status. It has everything to do with the basic human right to life. This year’s BE! Conference magnified the importance of a healthy relationship between governments and their citizens to create a safe place for our students to live and to learn.

The focus of BE! is to facilitate the interaction between students and adults, while providing the opportunity for student voices to be heard. Student-led workshops for other students focused on topics including college readiness, public safety and youth, combating racial profiling in the classroom, academic justice, and multicultural identity and communication.

At the adult sessions, Denver Police Chief Robert White and clinical psychologist Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clark discussed how improving relations between citizens and police and how raising awareness of mental health issues can have a positive impact on education; a community that feels safe can better support and educate its youth.

Student facilitated sessions at BE! demonstrated the willingness of youth to become involved with their education through community change. Students led and participated in discussions centering on racial identity and racialized experiences that highlighted the importance of understanding differences and the power of forgiveness as central in resolving race oriented strife.

A session about racial profiling in the classroom revealed empirical data regarding standardized testing, and the impact on college access for people from ethnically diverse communities. Participants learned how the limitations of language and monolithic values can negatively affect diverse test takers and produce unfavorable test outcomes. These findings raised awareness around standard test preparation and reform.

Throughout the student and adult sessions, relationship building emerged as a common theme vital to student success. Public safety officials need to have positive relationships with youth, with parents, and with educators so that our students feel safe.

In the adult sessions, it was apparent that Chief White and the City of Denver genuinely care about the state of affairs in education and want to understand the social context of the city they are policing.

While it was reassuring to hear Chief White’s commitment to the Denver youth in the adult session, it was the panel discussions with high school students that underscored the importance of brining youth together to discuss education and social justice. Throughout the day students indicated the value that education plays in solving social justice challenges. As students discussed high profile cases of racial violence and discussed their own, often negative interactions with police, it was clear they understand that they too, play a role in advancing social equality.

As an educator, it was uplifting for me to hear that students recognize that they need to be educated to make a difference. At the end it was clear, it is this kind of positive, knowledge based orientation towards social change that empowers our youth.

Overall, spending a day surrounded by the engagement and power at BE! highlighted the importance of listening and community dialogue. Listening to youth is a way to generate positive relationships, mutual understanding, and recognize the shared ownership in our students’ educational success. It is our goal to empower our students to take charge of their education and personal development by seeking help and resources, sharing their insights about their learning experiences, and establishing trusting relationships with adults and educators.

The BE! Conference was created as a way for CU Denver to facilitate connections with our surrounding community, and bridge relationships between the campus, community leaders, parents, and youth.

As we continue to build capacity for critical community dialogue, our goal is to establish a national platform for promoting sustainable student support networks.

In the end it is paramount that young people everywhere know that they have the right to life and education in a safe place.