Conference brings more than 200 to Madison to discuss equity for students of color

October 23, 2019   |   By Scott Girard

From The Capital Times:

More than 200 people from nine states will be in Madison Wednesday through Saturday to talk about making their schools better for minority students.

The Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District is hosting this year’s Minority Student Achievement Network national conference, an annual gathering of school districts from around the country in its 20th year.

The event at the Madison Concourse Hotel will allow the 168 students and 56 chaperones from 19 school districts to discuss the importance of student voice, hear from guest speakers and develop plans to bring back to their districts.

Middleton High School senior Tianbra Grant, who was on the planning committee, said she sees the conference as “a step forward” on fighting racism.

“You’re not going to change racism in predominantly white schools with one conference a year. It takes time, a long time,” Tianbra said. “It’s OK to change some hearts, a few hearts here and there. If I can change five people out of 10, I still win.”

While visitors will come from as far as Arizona and Massachusetts, four local districts will also take part in the conference: MCPASD as the host and the Madison, Verona Area and Sun Prairie Area school districts as attendees.

Students will tour eight colleges or schools at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the conference, something MSAN executive director Madeline Hafner said is essential to the event, as they consider what the experience might be like for a student of color on a majority white campus. Hafner is based at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW-Madison, and has been the executive director for 12 years. Each conference, she said, is a “hope-filled experience.”

“It really is one of the best parts of my job,” Hafner said. "Their ideas are so complex in the ways they want to address systemic racism, but they're also the most spot on in terms of getting to the crux of the problem."

Among the keynote speakers is Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is scheduled to speak after dinner Wednesday night. Other events include cultural performances and a talent show, time to explore State Street and attending the Black Violin performance Friday night at the Overture Center.

MSAN addresses school disparities in three ways, Hafner said: research, bringing adults in the education system together to discuss the issues and supporting student leadership.

“Our districts are committed to supporting students to guide the work of equity happening in their districts,” she said. “No district does this better than Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District.”

Actions taken out of previous conferences in Middleton have included videos on microaggressions and slurs featuring students and staff talking about what they mean and the importance of understanding how they affect the person on the receiving end.

Creating the schedule and topics for this year’s conference, titled “The Roses That Grew From Concrete,” was a “student-led” process, Grant said. The conference’s title is taken from a Tupac Shakur poem:

“Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature's law is wrong it learned to walk without having feet. Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.”

MHS senior Matthew Thompson said he’s looking forward to talking about these topics with others who experience systematic inequities.

“It’s comfortable being in a space of people of color,” Matthew said. “We see people like us and we talk to people like us about our experiences. It’s very empowering just being around that.”

Hafner said that feeling of empowerment is one of her favorite parts of being at the conference, and it’s visible in the ideas that students come up with to bring back to their districts.

“These young people, they know exactly what they and their peers need to be successful,” Hafner said. “To watch them when they get together and have that many students talking to each other from other districts and the synergy that happens in their ideas. Their ideas are so much better when they’re together, they’re stronger.”

Junior Marco Antonio Quechol Ramirez is looking forward to the conference as an opportunity to create a better future for others who look like him.

“I just know that I don’t want my kids to go through this as well in the future and I want change now for future generations,” he said.