Sabrina Madison wants nothing to do with organizing the next Black Excellence Youth Conference.
She wants the students to totally own it, instead.
“It’s about leadership,” Madison said. “I just want to give them the skeleton and let them go. I want them to understand that they have the power to create.”
On Monday, Madison and JoAnne Brown, the multicultural resource coordinator at Memorial High School, hosted the first annual Black Excellence Youth Conference at the Best Western Plus InnTowner Madison. Over 75 black high school students from Madison, Verona, Sun Prairie and Sauk City attended the event.
The daylong conference centered on helping students plan for the future, with panels about college access, entrepreneurship and financial planning. All speakers were African-American community members.
“It was inspiring to see all these black children and adults in a room together to talk about how we can be excellent,” said TeJah Travis, 15, a sophomore at Verona Area High School. “It’s great to be around adults who think we can be amazing and smart.”
Everett Mitchell, pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Church and a Dane County Circuit Court judge gave the opening keynote address. He talked about charting his own path, despite other people's stereotypes about his identity.
“The moment you don’t know who you are, you are put on a path set for you,” Mitchell said, recounting growing up in Ft. Worth, Texas, and struggling to read by the time he graduated from high school.
Mitchell said he was contacted by a recruiter and enrolled at a small college in Texas where he found two black women on the faculty who helped him improve his reading skills. He later transferred to Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta.
“You don’t have to be perfect, you have to get what you need to lead,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell’s speech resonated with Justin Maclin, 16, a junior at Sun Prairie High School.
“It showed me you can get through any situation,” Justin said. “He couldn't read as a senior, but he ended up a judge. That’s inspiring.”
On a panel about staying engaged and creating impact while balancing studies, current and recent graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Edgewood College talked about what they needed to lead.
“Don’t spread yourself too thin by trying to fit every niche and patch every hole,” said Jordan Gaines, a recent UW-Madison graduate and reporter at Madison365.
Gaines, who was very active in social justice organizing at UW-Madison, said it was “very exhausting” for black students to gain validation for their work and events on campus.
“Sometimes I wish I could have went to school and just been a student,” Gaines said. “But it made us who we are.”
Savion Castro, a Madison native and current UW-Madison student talked about the “inherent traumas” black students face attending predominantly white institutions. He cautioned the younger students to “pick your battles wisely” and prioritize their mental health and physical well-being.
“Being honest and vulnerable can really go a long way,” Castro said.
Jentarria Bey, 16, a sophomore at Sun Prairie High School said she faces similar issues as one of the few black students at her school.
“As students who have been through what we’ve been through, I wanted to see how they felt about the issues,” she said.
Although Jentarria did not agree with everything the panelists said, she appreciated hearing how black students survive and thrive on their college campuses.
“Things can change in the school if we don’t ignore the little things,” she said. “We should fight against microaggressions to create a better nation.”
A panel on entrepreneurship featured several local black business owners, the youngest of which was Eneale Pickett, a current student at UW-Madison whose Insert Apparel clothing line made national headlines for its direct approach to confronting racism.
Pickett said one of the hardest things about being an entrepreneur is staying committed to your work, despite backlash.
“When you are walking in your truth, everyone doesn't believe it,” Pickett said as he discussed his fear of being kicked out of school because of the controversial shirts and hoodies.
Daijon Echols, a senior at Madison East High School, praised Pickett for his unapologetic vision.
“Thank you for inspiring me to be bold,” Echols said. He purchased a shirt from Pickett’s clothing line that said “All White People are Racist,” and wore it to school the day after Trump was elected.
Binta Jammeh, 14, is a freshman at Verona Area High School. Binta enjoyed the panel because it showcased prosperous African-Americans in Madison.
“It seems like there are not a lot of black people in our community, but there are and they want to see us succeed,” Binta said. “There are people who have succeeded, took their opportunities and made them into bigger ones.”
Dianna Murray, a senior at Madison West High School who participated in planning committee meetings for the conference said she appreciated that young people were at the center of the event.
“You never see conferences set up to celebrate the excellence of black youth and black people succeeding,” she said. “A lot of times, people don’t ask youth what they want and they assume what we want. I got the chance to put my voice out there.”
Johnetta Walters, also a senior at West and a member of the planning committee, said holding the event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was the perfect way to end a long weekend dedicated to the accomplishments of black youth in Madison.
“Martin Luther King was such a good leader. We wanted to lead on this day as a reflection of his work,” she said.