Young Black students’ voices heard at White House summit co-hosted by the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education

October 23, 2014 — Nearly 400 people gathered for a White House-sponsored summit at Penn to hear young people talk about the realities of growing up Black in Philadelphia.

The crowd of educators and public officials was impressed, and inspired. 

This was the fourth in a series of White House summits held this year around the country designed to address ways to create opportunities and empower parents, grandparents and guardians in the community to increase the number of Black youth who graduate from high school prepared for future success. The Penn summit was unique in that it privileged the voices of students – every panelist was in high school or had just completed it.

“I think a lot of people in the room were surprised to hear these young people say they want to be challenged and held accountable,” said Shaun Harper, executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education and an associate professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

“They weren’t saying ‘get off my back’ or ‘leave me alone.’ They said we need adults, teachers, folks in our schools to show they care about us.”

The Center co-hosted the “White House Summit on Educational Excellence for African Americans” with Ebony magazine and the Penn Center for African Studies at Penn Law’s Golkin Hall October 18. In designing the summit, Harper said he and White House organizers wanted to put the lived experience of young people front and center.

Panelists — all high school students from the city — discussed their experiences in Philadelphia and its schools, perceptions and realities about black youth and identified ways they could be better supported in and out of school.

During lunch, sponsored by the Penn Center for Africana Studies, they watched short films on Philadelphia’s Black LGBT and homeless youth. 

The students had clearly spent a lot of time considering their city, Harper said, and its circumstances.

During a panel on “Reimagining Black Youth in Philadelphia and America,” E.J. Boddy told the crowd mainstream American culture tells Black teens they can only succeed if they are rappers or actors. And too many Black teens believe it. They need to hear more success stories, Boddy said, about Black scientists, business leaders, writers, and philosophers. They need to know there is a path they can find and follow.

Boddy graduated from One Bright Ray Community High School this summer. A medical issue forced him to wait until the spring to enroll in college, where he plans to study business administration. One of the summit attendees was so moved by Boddy’s words that she offered to pay for his college application fees.

The night before the summit, the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education held a reception to thank 80 representatives from community organizations that serve Philadelphia youth.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2012, creating the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. The initiative’s mission is to restore the United States to its role as the global leader in education, to strengthen the nation by improving educational outcomes and to help ensure that all African Americans receive an education that properly prepares them for college, productive careers and satisfying lives.