At conferences, students guided to face challenges, effect change
PITTSFIELD — Two daylong conferences 5 miles apart Thursday helped Berkshire County students to navigate common challenges.
And to speak up, be heard and make change.
In Pittsfield, the Berkshire District Attorney's Office's Youth Advisory Board hosted the STRIVE Youth Leadership Conference for middle school students. The name stands for Students Teaching Respect Integrity Values and Equality.
And at Hancock Shaker Village, about 115 high school students chose among 20 workshops focused on the arts, compassion in action, wellness or "adulting" as part of the 411 in the 413 Youth Conference.
In one workshop there, Lucy Doren, a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, joined with co-facilitator JV Hampton-VanSant, special programs coordinator for Multicultural BRIDGE.
Together, they guided the group in a discussion that touched on the election of President Donald Trump, the importance of recognizing privilege and the impact of power structures in local schools.
Doren remembered a day when an African-American classmate was referred to as "brother" by their white male teacher during a discussion of slavery in America.
The teacher inappropriately used her classmate, she suggested, "as the identity that stood for all people of color, everywhere."
In Doren's group, the long discussion that ensued pointed to a need for young people to speak up to correct what they see as harmful power structures.
Students need opportunities to have tough conversations, channeling anger into productive discussion, Doren said.
The 411 in the 413 Youth Conference provides one such space, Hampton-VanSant said.
"[It's] really actually going to help them in the long run," Hampton-VanSant said of the conference. "I will always be here to support."
The conference is a collaboration of the Berkshire United Way, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and the Railroad Street Youth project, as part of the Berkshire Youth Development Project.
At STRIVE, held at the Berkshire Plaza Hotel, the lineup embraced a simple maxim: if it isn't broken, don't fix it.
Ashley Barnes, a junior at Lee Middle and High School who serves on the advisory board, said organizers kept this year's programming largely the same as in 2017 because challenges facing students continue.
"Things like drunk driving, things like social media — these are problems that are present in everyday life," she said.
One repeat speaker was Robert Hackenson Jr., who spoke to 160 eighth-graders about social media safety — with a twist.
The audience gasped as Hackenson created an illusion that his head was shrinking and growing.
As it is for magicians, so it can be online.
"What people post is what they're projecting," he said of sites like Facebook. "Not necessarily reality."
He cautioned students to take a step back from technology and be aware of social media's capacity for accidental or deliberate harm.
If students receive a text that upsets them, they should put the phone down, walk away and only later seek answers.
He warned students about ways they could be victimized online, including if they send nude photographs of themselves in a practice known as "sexting."
"If you ever feel pressure to send something like this, run," he said. "They don't respect you."
In the room next door to Hackenson, students heard the story of Rebecca White, whose mother and best friend were killed in a 1999 car crash caused by a drunken driver.
Along with the story of the crash, White shared her keys for happiness with the group: forgiveness, avoiding stress, laughing more, making good choices and taking time for what matters.
Students last year liked hearing from White, so the advisory board decided to bring her back, Barnes said.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at email@example.com, at @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter and 413-496-6247.
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