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Summit gives black youth a 'safe space' to share experiences growing up in Utah

Published: Saturday, Oct. 12 2013 7:38 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Born in the Washington, D.C., area, 12-year-old Elijah Boyd moved to South Jordan about a year ago.

In doing so, the black youth relocated from a highly diverse community to a state where blacks make up about 2.5 percent of the population, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau figures.

One of the hardest things to get used to, Elijah said, has been his schoolmates' fascination with his hair. Classmates will say things like, "Wow, your hair is puffy." Or they'll run their hands through it, "and then I have to pick it," he said.

It's a small thing, but it violates his personal space to the point he sometimes has to flatly tell classmates, "Hands off. Stop. Go away."

On Saturday, Elijah attended the inaugural State of Black Youth Summit at Rowland Hall Middle School.

"The purpose of the event is to create a safe, transparent space and opportunity for African and African-American youth to discuss issues that are relevant to their personal, cultural and college trajectories," said Bryan Hotchkins, event chairman and a postdoctoral research assistant in the University of Utah Master of Public Administration program.

Elijah said he plans to attend the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to double major in business and engineering.

But another attendee, Lanaria Allen of Clearfield, is a senior in high school. For her, picking the right college has been a vexing decision.

"It's freaking me out. After you choose a college, it's hard to transfer if it doesn't work out. You feel like your whole future is based on this one choice," she said.

But the event, sponsored by a graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African-Americans, opened her eyes to the possibility of joining a sorority, because it could provide a sense of community when she's away at school, she said.

Above all, Saturday's event gave Allen a sense of "community," she said.

That was one of the summit's goals, Hotchkins said.

"We told them, 'We want you to come and share your narrative because you're not alone,'" he said.

Other topics addressed during the daylong conference, organized by the high school fraternity Alpha Beau, included the topics of dealing with racism, becoming productive leaders in high school, accepting positive self-images and developing academic resiliency.

William Smith, associate professor in the Department of Education, Culture and Society and the ethnic studies program at the University of Utah, was the keynote speaker.

Smith, who is also associate dean for diversity, access and equity in the College of Education, told the students that there were four keys to success in academia and life — appropriately managing their space, time, energy and movement.

Smith urged the students to network with other students and reach out to faculty for support during their college years.

"We think we're supposed to do it all on our own. That's the biggest mistake," he said.

One mother in attendance said her daughter is a college freshman with a full load of classes and a part-time job. She is worried that work, with its immediate reward of a paycheck, will take a higher priority than schoolwork.

"You've just got to monitor your grades," Smith advised.

Smith also encouraged the students to study hard so they won't fall prey to trick questions on tests as he once did. When he failed a test, Smith said he went to his professor for help. When the professor examined his testing form, he noticed numerous occasions when Smith initially erased the correct answers.

"He said, 'You got to believe in yourself.'"

Smith learned if he really knew the content, he'd be less likely to fall for trick questions.

"If you really study, if you believe in yourself with all your heart and with all your mind, you'll be fine," he said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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