It’s homecoming season, a time of year to celebrate all of the best aspects of interscholastic competition and tradition.

But this year it’s also proving to be a great time to start a new tradition with an event that brings area high schools together in a spirit of cooperation instead of rivalry. To meet each other instead of trying to beat each other.

The inaugural Youth Diversity Inclusion Summit happened Friday at the downtown headquarters of Wellmark Blue Cross, one of the event co-sponsors along with Des Moines Public Schools.

Ames, Ankeny Centennial, Johnson, Marshalltown, Southeast Polk, Urbandale, and West Des Moines Valley joined the five DMPS comprehensive high schools – East, Hoover, Lincoln, North and Roosevelt – as participants in the event.

Some 150 student leaders from the 12 area schools were welcomed to the Wellmark campus for a day of discussion, training and planning aimed at raising consciousness and fostering understanding.

Last fall an ugly incident occurred after a football game when a player from a suburban school racially slurred one of his opponents from a city school. For some of the parents who were present it proved to be the last straw. One of them, Cory Jackson, is a Wellmark employee.

“Inclusion is an important principle here,” she told the student delegates during her welcoming remarks Friday morning. “I wondered if Wellmark might want to get involved in staging an event like this.”

So she fired off an e-mail to CEO John Forsyth, and asked. Before the day was over she got his enthusiastic response and the ball got rolling.

Roosevelt principal Kevin Biggs was another of the catalysts who made the summit happen and he led the attendees in a morning icebreaker to set the stage for a productive day of frank and free exchange. At Biggs’s urging students who’d been strangers to one another when they woke up this morning were giving each other backrubs and swapping brag points about their respective schools.

Next up was a session of the OUCH training that Wellmark provides for all of its employees. It got the students talking to one another about things like the consequences of staying silent in the face of, well, racial slurs, for example.

Tools were distributed to help people build each other up and fix awkward situations. If nothing else, students learned, just say “Ouch!” when someone else says or does something insensitive or downright hurtful.

Roosevelt sophomore Shaddai Johnson delivered a powerful keynote of spoken word poetry in the middle of the day’s agenda. Shaddai was a member of the DMPS team that competed last summer in the Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Festival in San Francisco.

That segued from the talk-the-talk phase to the walk-the-walk phase of the agenda.

DMPS Activities Director Jason Allen gave the delegates their charge: “We need all of you to speak up,” he said. “We are expecting you to do that. You are the leaders.”

Each of the dozen schools developed an action plan as a takeaway, and they took turns sharing them with their peers as the day’s final activity. Good ideas streamed.

  • PE teachers incorporating cultural “games” into their curriculum
  • Shared halftime activities between student bodies at sporting events
  • Topical quotes sprinkled into daily announcements
  • Office hours for teachers, a la college profs
  • Moments of silence in hallways during passing periods

There were plenty more where those came from. Most importantly, there was an energetic sense of critical mass throughout the event. These were not self-absorbed individuals looking to pad their high school resumes by going through the motions of an exercise longer on style than substance. There was genuine, palpable desire to become change agents.

Every school that showed up spoke up.

The way North put it in summarizing its action plan was “Y’all can’t get upstairs without taking some steps!” Then everyone got a jolt of Polar Bear “mojo” to take home with them, along with everything else they received during a day that deserves an encore.

Sometimes good ideas turn out to be exactly that. The inaugural Youth Diversity Inclusion Summit was one of those times. As a student from Southeast Polk noted: “This is a beautiful thing.”

Photos of the Youth Diversity and Inclusion Summit

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