African Diaspora Youth Conference #Windsor #Detroit #AfricanDiaspora

This weekend another teacher and I took a group of 10 students to the 10th annual African Youth Diaspora Conference.  This year the students got to experience the University of Windsor, the Charles Wright Museum and the University of Michigan. The theme was “KUJICHAGULIA – Self-determination“and was evident in all activities over the weekend.  The students have come back as changed young people. The friends, experiences and emotions the students explored this weekend were complex and character building.

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The 4 hour bus ride from Toronto to Windsor was greeted by energetic University of Windsor students and Dr Andrew Allen with bags and t-shirts for the group.   Students split into groups mixed between Toronto, Windsor and Detroit schools.  At first complaints of not knowing anyone turned to inseparable new friendships. Students  got to work in groups on arts based expressions and presented that evening in spoken word, poetry, dance, art and drama.  Meals provided were excellent, full of choice and to the appreciation of the students allowed for seconds. A teacher in the TDSB, Dave Watkins, who has been with the conference from the start welcomed the students.  He spoke about the struggles as a person of African Diaspora himself, faced and challenges of the media in defining black youth. He encouraged students by saying “Only be defined by what you do and who you want to be. You will tell people who you are, and tell people how you want to be treated. “. He also spoke about the importance of having allies and friends of all backgrounds as people from your own group may not always have your best interests in mind.

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” The people who will help you get to where you want to be will not always be from your community “.  John Solarski who is the main organizer this year also welcomed the students and provided a history and need for the conference.

That evening I took my group along the Windsor water front and campus for an evening walk.  Getting them to sleep in the dorms was challenging as they bonded so quickly with new friends. The boys on my floor were playing games, listening to music and playing PS3 together.

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With an early wake up and breakfast buffet the dean of University of Windsor addressed us and the importance of post secondary education.  His message was based around technology and the unlimited connections and opportunity youth have.  He said “Do not get lost in the flock unless you know where the flock is going”.  We moved to the other keynote where Gail Perry Maison discussed finances with students. She took out a fresh 20 dollar bill and asked who wanted it, everyone said yes, then she rolled it into a ball and asked the same, everyone still said yes, she then put it on the dirty ground and stomped on it.  Again, everyone still wanted it.  She asked why? One student yelled it still has value. She said this needs to be applied to humans, people who have been stomped down and at the lowest point need to recognize their value and so do others. She talked to kids and asked why they “invest” in brands and provide them with a walking billboard? She encourage students to buy stocks and really invest in the products. She also said  “You shouldn’t love money because it doesn’t love you back. You can always make money but its just a tool.”.  She talked to students about money problems which are not caused by money but have roots somewhere else.  She finished with telling students to make the most of themselves and do not waste an opportunity with attitude. Students then branched to sessions on a variety of topics. I attended one by the sergeant of Windsor Police.  He talked about positive interactions with police and how to diffuse situations through role play.

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We crossed the border to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit. This experience was both amazing and horrifying. We had a guided tour through a huge installation through over 20 rooms. The path was the path an African slave would have taken to get to America and then modern day African-Americans. With movies, sculptures, animations and realistic humans. The history and culture of Africa was celebrated showcasing achievement and culture. The introduction of trade with foreign countries showed bartering with precious items and then resulted in trading of African men, women and children. The guide reenacted a mother having her son taken for slavery. We walked into the cells where slaves were held shackled so tight cuts were seen on their ankles.  The kids were not prepared for going into the belly of the ship. With a life size ship lined with bodies of slaves chained within inches of each other to the floor and shelving compartments. The guide described the conditions of excrement and rape of the women as well as forced exercise on deck. Students were in tears and I was overwhelmed with sadness that  human beings did this to a whole continent of people. Walking to the next room was the ship landing and slaves being sold and branded like cattle. The rest was the journey to freedom with hardships of segregation, lynching and discrimination. The last few rooms showed the rise of power back within African Americans right up to Obama. I was left speechless and forever changed and the students grateful for the enormous sacrifices that has brought them here. The guide challenged students and said this was the start of greatness and they have to continue the legacy of African diaspora.

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Returning back to Windsor to a heavy hearted dinner students discussed and debriefed  what happened. Many said they heard of slaves and the stories but none have experienced the pain like the did today. Seeing the bodies shackled, the sound of human flesh sizzling when branded and the cries of a mother losing her child became real. The students felt almost guilty because they felt unworthy of the freedom that came at such a great cost to African Diaspora and allies who helped abolish slavery. Students said they are fed by the media how a black person should be based on music, TV and movies which is usually controlled by white males. Many felt anger that many in their own race bring them down and perpetuate the stereotypes. They said they will make better decisions and take and define their own image and not let others define them.

We finished by skits, and a performance by a competition level dance club.  Each and every student received a certificate of appreciation which was presented over the support and cheers of the Toronto, Windsor ad Detroit schools.  Students came up to me saying they can’t just got back to school, they said when they go back people do not support each other like they did at the conference. They felt they could build, collaborate and be themselves instead of holding up a tough image at school. Many also promised to stop shadism as they were sick of dividing African diaspora further. They will stop calling people whitewashed as success isn’t determined by whiteness. They also said they will listen critically to hip hop and limit certain hip hop that promotes racism, drug abuse, hyper masculinity, and degradation of women.

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The next day we boarded buses and headed across to University of Michigan. Our students were shocked driving through Detroit with whole blocks of abandoned businesses, liquor stores and “gentlemen” establishments. The students saw graffiti filled streets and burned down houses. The university was tucked away on the Henry Ford Estates (Ford automotive company). The students got a tour of the beautiful campus and was welcomed by more high school students from Michigan area. It was great collaborating and giving students another campus experience. They attended sessions from prominent African American business owners, professors, and writers. We boarded buses, saying goodbye to our new Detroit, Windsor and Toronto friends.

This was one of the most life changing and worthwhile field trips. What does this mean for education system? I feel that this conference was empowering and provided a different learning experience. I think we could do a better job presenting history from around the world, acknowledging and celebrating successes of diverse people. The students learned so well during the arts activity that we should incorporate more differentiated instruction strategies. As well just show the students you care. I think the relationship just over this trips with students from my own school will last forever and lead to a whole new level of respect.

This wouldn’t have happened without the great team John, Dave, TDSB teachers, Dr Andrew Allen, University of Windsor staff and students, and most importantly the students from Toronto, Windsor and Detroit.

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