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One of the biggest local events focused on educating children of color — along with providing scholarships — takes place this month, on Jan. 16.

The 14th annual Educating Children of Color Summit has gone virtual as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and big gatherings are prohibited. The summit, which brings students, parents and educators together for a day of classes and sessions on higher education, leadership, and self-empowerment, will also award $20,000 in scholarships to students and teachers. This year’s presenters include nationally recognized authors and speakers like anti-racism educator Tim Wise, University of San Francisco School of Law professor Rhonda Magee and public health consultant Willy Wilkinson. 

“Our goal for youth is to teach them about higher education, leadership opportunities, life skills and self-empowerment — and to expose them to higher education and careers,” said Regina Walter, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Educating Children of Color. “Our goal with professionals mostly is to reach educators so they can engage and inspire children who don’t look like them, weren’t raised like them, through the use of culturally responsive pedagogy. Our goal with parents is just to teach them what it means to be college ready, what it means to be career ready and how to hold kids and schools accountable.”

This year, the summit’s virtual program poses a challenge for Walter. As of Dec. 3, she had more scholarships than registrants for the Summit. Parents and students can visit https://educatingchildrenofcolor.org/ to register.

“We have five scholarships based on the theme, ‘Infinite hope with deliberate effort,’” she said. “Then we have a $1,000 scholarship for someone interested in a career in the construction field. We have a $1,000 scholarship for an individual who’s interested in a career in cosmetology. We have two $500 scholarships for a single mom. We have two $1,000 scholarships sponsored by Omega Psi Phi fraternity, and that’s based on an essay about societal problems and solutions. We have one being sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta. Then we’ll give away two $500 teacher awards that a teacher can use either in their classroom or to further their education.”

Walter has witnessed firsthand the impact Educating Children of Color has had on participants during the past 13 years. 

“We have a number of youth who never ever contemplated college, who are now successful college graduates and have professional careers,” she said. “We’ve given away $200,000 in scholarship money over the last 13 years, and more than 200 laptops. We’ve increased the number of people who attend [the summit], it’s about 1,500 a year. That very first year we had 350. We’re able to attract nationally renowned speakers, and [we’re most]proud of the youth who have taken advantage of the opportunities we’ve given them in terms of scholarship money or leadership opportunities.”

Walter isn’t the only one who believes in the summit’s impact for local communities. Wendy Birhanzel, superintendent for Harrison School District 2, sees it as a valuable professional development opportunity for teachers in her district. 

“We are partners with Educating Children of Color Summit,” she said. “We’ve been sending students for years. We usually have the largest contingency of students. We value the program so much that we bus our students there. We do planning prior with our students and starting last year we paid for staff to attend also. We’ll be doing that moving forward. It’s just such a good opportunity for our students and staff to come together and really learn some new strategies and skills on how to work together.”

Last year, D2 sent 135 teachers, administrators, central office staff, instructional coaches, and athletic directors to the summit. 

“I would say it’s one of the best professional developments staff can have around equity,” said Birhanzel. “It allows our staff to see things from different perspectives. In education, it’s all about relationships, and so you can’t teach the content if you don’t have that relationship, so it really helps create those strong relationships with our students from many different backgrounds than our staff. I really think it allows staff to uncover their own biases they might have, or see things from a different perspective that’s not been brought to their foresight before. It’s just really eye-opening and allows everyone to be on the same page. We’re all here to work to support students of diverse backgrounds, and here’s how we do it best. It’s a great opportunity, there’s multiple sessions going on, and every time staff comes back and they’re just invigorated with new ideas to try and really reflecting on their practices of, ‘How do I change things in the classroom to make it better for students?’”

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This year’s summit includes $20,000 in scholarships.

Issues around racial justice and equity have been a hot topic following widespread, sustained national protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The national movement for racial justice has influenced this year’s Educating Children of Color Summit. 

“It absolutely directed what our content would be,” said Walter. “Our content committee spent our time talking about George Floyd’s murder and we chose our speakers based on that — and self-care. We recognize the trauma that affects our nation also affects our children and affects our educators. It’s an emphasis on equity and self-care [this year].”

Addressing equity in the school setting is something that can have an impact on the educational outcomes for marginalized students, especially those who not only struggle around issues of race, but also gender and sexual identity. Willy Wilkinson, one of this year’s summit presenters, is a California-based public health consultant and the author of Born on the Edge of Race and Gender: A Voice for Cultural Competency

“Of course people of color are experiencing multiple systems of oppression around race, ethnic identity, gender identity and expression and other issues,” he said. “Studies show that Black boys, or gender non-conforming girls, those are the folks who are experiencing more disciplinary action at schools. When people are perceived as breaking rules around gender, they’re experiencing multiple systems of oppression around being discriminated against by race, as well as gender and gender expression. When you look at statistics on a national level, for instance, in one large-scale study done nationwide [the National Transgender Discrimination Survey] with 6,450 respondents in every state and territory in the U.S., 78 percent of the respondents had experienced harassment and discrimination in their K-12 experience. High incidences of harassment, physical and sexual violence, even, in their K-12 experience. People of color are disproportionately impacted. When we talk about alarming statistics in the community, we’re talking about Black and brown folks being primarily impacted, so we really have to look at statistics with that lens.”

Not only do students of color face discrimination in school settings, but they are also more likely to face legal consequences. Birhanzel notes that the Educating Children of Color Summit has had a positive impact on D2’s restorative justice programs. 

“I can tell you, as we know, the data shows students of color, students in poverty are overrepresented in the justice system,” she said. “A lot of the work at the ECOC Summit helps staff see students in a different light, so it’s really helpful for our work around restorative justice and really looking at, ‘How do we proactively support students of all different backgrounds?’ Staff will come back with all kinds of ideas and just excitement around changing the culture and changing how we work with students versus being more of a punitive system.”

The focus on equity and intersectional issues is a promising sign of the times, and so is the success of the summit’s sister program, University Diversity, a multi-session program for professionals and community members. 

“This year [In 2020] more than 500 people signed up for Diversity University in light of everything that was happening in this country, which was completely overwhelming,” said Walter. “We ended up having to do two one-week sessions and five one-day sessions to try to accommodate everybody, and we still weren’t able to. This fall we’ve been doing a fall version of Diversity University in two-hour bites, so the community’s response has been incredible in terms of wanting to heal the divide in this country.” 

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.