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Students gain skills to make change at Menlo School's 'action summit'

Menlo School hosts event for Bay Area students who want to make a difference in their world

By Elisabeth Westermann/Special to The Almanac

Over a hundred students from 12 different Bay Area schools, including Menlo-Atherton High, Castilleja in Palo Alto, and Eastside Prep in East Palo Alto, gathered at Menlo School in Atherton on Oct. 23 for the first-ever 1Bay Youth Action Summit. The students came to Menlo to form connections with other Bay Area youth activists and to brainstorm actions that students can take to address issues ranging from inequity in education to gun violence.

According to Chris Young, Menlo's community engagement director and the event's primary organizer, the goals for the day were twofold. He hoped that students attending the all-day summit would "find allies on issues [they want to work on ... and create initial plans for action."

His idea for the summit came from "the observation that young people around the Bay Area have a lot of energy to be activists on issues that they really care about," Young explained. While 1Bay is the name of the summit held at Menlo only, it may become an "organization independent of Menlo" in the future, according to Young. There are no set plans, he noted, but similar summits under the name 1Bay could be held annually and hosted by different area schools.

Many of the attending students said they hoped that it would lead to real action. "I'm here to meet people passionate about change, and to talk less and act more," said M-A senior Lena Kalotihos. Angel Tlachi, a junior at Arise High School in Oakland, echoed that sentiment, saying, "I'm hoping to create action. A lot of people talk without any action."

Young planned the day with that goal in mind. The students got to participate in an "activism fair" at lunch, which featured tables and representatives from over 30 organizations, including We.org, Surfrider Foundaton, Project We Hope, Second Harvest Food Bank, and People Acting in Community Together. It was designed to allow students to become involved in organizations helping to address the issues they are passionate about, Young said.

In addition, students attending the summit spent much of the afternoon planning action in small groups. Each group focused on a different issue, ranging from health care to climate change to mental health. These groups created a poster outlining possible solutions that they later presented to the rest of the summit.

For junior Alix Borton, a member of Menlo's delegation, this was her favorite part of the day. "Hearing [other students attending the summit speak allowed me to step back from the little bubble of my personal interests and learn about the issues my peers cared about, which made me care about them too," she said.

In terms of achieving its goals, the summit seems to have had success. Marina Hernandez, a teacher at KIPP King Collegiate High School in San Lorenzo who brought her students to the summit, was pleased with how it went. "I hoped my students would gain a collaborative experience and grow as critical thinkers, and seeing my students talking to other students, laughing and with serious faces, it seems like that's exactly what's happening," she said.

Some students have already begun to work together on issues they care about. "I am looking forward to collaborating with the guest students from other schools who share my enthusiasm for climate action," Borton said. "We made a group chat and everything, so we're ready to get the ball rolling!"

To help continue the momentum from the summit, Young is sending out a survey that will ask students about their interest in joining different committees that will work to address issues of concern for the students. Young is planning to help students in the committees coordinate via group text and video chatting.

The central theme of the day was that youth have the power to create change. Both of the summit's speakers, Pastor Michael McBride, who is a leader in multiple organizations working toward preventing gun violence, and Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford, included this theme in their talks. They used examples such as the Freedom Riders, young people who rode buses across the South many decades ago to call attention to the segregation that persisted on interstate travel systems, to demonstrate how young people can be catalysts for change.

McBride opened his speech with an inspiring message for students: "Any change that is meaningful that has happened in our country, dare I say in the world, has happened because young people have been the engine for that change. ... You are your ancestors' wildest dreams. Hundreds of years ago they were hoping, they were wishing for you to be sitting in this seat alive and to take what they had done, but not yet finished, and advance it even further than they had ever imagined."

Elisabeth Westermann is a Menlo School student and a former intern for The Almanac.

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