7:40 p.m. PDT October 23, 2015
The Contributing Voices conference held at Western Oregon University on Friday had one message for the students in attendance: Your voice counts.
More than 600 ninth graders from the Salem-Keizer School District attended the second annual Contributing Voices conference in Monmouth,where they listened to guest speakers, participated in activities and workshops, ate together while observing and discussing a student panel, and toured the university campus.
The purpose of the conference was to “celebrate the rich diversity in Salem-Keizer Public Schools through the many contributing voices that make the district so strong,” said Brad Capener, migrant coordinator for the school district.
In a prepared statement, he said the goal of the conference was to “bring together incoming freshmen who are adding a second language, migratory youth, Native American youth, and ninth-grade students enrolled in the district’s Students in Transition Educational Program, to explore and appreciate their own stories.”
To get a culture of inclusiveness and inspiration going at the conference, it began with a handful of guest speakers.
David Bautista, one of the Assistant Superintendents for the Oregon Department of Education, was one of the first to speak.
Bautista came to the United States when he was 33, after having completed his college education at the University of Guadalajara.
He spoke to the students about his experience learning English, and being part of a bilingual, bi-cultural family.
“We all have a culture, we all have a language,” he said. “From there we have an identity.”
But with culture, language and identity, Bautista said, we also have a responsibility of honoring diversity — something every student in attendance was committing to by being there.
“(Diversity) is respect to all people (who) form a community,” he said.
Throughout his speech, Bautista wove in lessons about experience and knowledge, the importance of learning from, growing with, and respecting one another.
He said, 100 years ago, on Oct. 23, 1915, women were marching, demanding the right to vote.
“What’s going to happen 100 years from now?” he asked the students. “You are the future. We are making history.”
He stressed the importance of students of color and the role these children will play in the world as professionals.
“It is you who will shape the future of this nation,” he said.
Keynote speaker Joaquin Zihuatanejo had his own stories and lessons to share.
Zihuatanejo is a poet, spoken word artist, and award-winning teacher. He was born and raised in Dallas, Texas.
Growing up, his grandfather played a large role in his life.
Zihuatanejo attributes his love of poetry and words to his grandfather’s influence in many ways.
“My story starts with a yard man,” he told the students.
Zihuatanejo’s grandfather had him read stories and poems in English, though his grandfather critiqued his reading while speaking Spanish.
“My grandfather was my first teacher,” he said.
When he was 9, he asked his grandfather, “Why do you make me read these stupid books?”
“This neighborhood is surrounded on all sides by gangs, crime, poverty, violence,” he said his grandfather responded. “But when you are inside the book, when you are inside the poem, you are safe, and none of that can hurt you.”
Those words would forever change Zihuatanejo.
“And with those words, a spell was broken,” he said. “With those words, a life was saved. Mine.”
Zihuatanejo shared a couple of his poems and left the students with this message: be unapologetically yourself. Embrace your culture and language and use your voice to make the world better.
Feeling empowered and motivated, the students broke into workshop groups.
Some workshops exposed students to new cultures, some challenged them to develop their leadership skills, some taught them to break down barriers.
Youth with a Mission (YWAM), a christian non-profit in Salem, lead an outdoor, interactive workshop, in which students had to take risks and step outside of their comfort zones.
Though most workshops had 20-25 students each, this had 60.
Jessica Bedolla-Yepez, 14, stepped in as a leader while participating in one of the activities.
Each student had a small pipe that had been cut in half so the students could see a marble role through it. The students had to put the pipes together in such a way that they were not connected, but could role a marble from one pipe to another across yards of grass until it reach a bucket in the center of the field. By getting the marble into the bucket, the students symbolized someone graduating high school.
This exercise taught the students the importance of working together to accomplish their goals.
Bedolla-Yepez was the first in the row of students. She ran to the other end of the line as soon as the marble rolled from her pipe so she could help at the other end, all while helping lead the group.
“Is everyone ready?” she would say. “Try to keep it as straight as possible.”
The students got both marbles into the bucket, resulting in loud, celebratory cheers.
Bedolla-Yepez was inspired by the conference in many ways.
“It’s interesting to learn about other cultures and learn what other people are going through,” Bedolla-Yepez said. “It’s good to hear others’ unique stories.”
npate@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6745, or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate