A sea of blue shirts on elementary-age kids filled Van Bien's gym Friday, each moving between activities with a message scrawled across their chests: be the change that you wish to see in the world.
It was the first attempt by Prince George's inner city schools to come together through a student-led conference – an effort organizers plan to repeat several times a year as an initiative foster student leadership and partnerships with other schools.
Jaiden Stearns is in Grade 8, but returned to her elementary alma mater to help with the exercise.
As a former student leader, she said learning how to be strong is important when so much bullying happens.
When she was at Van Bien, they often work with the younger grades.
"I got to teach them that you need to step up, you need to have a voice in order to do this. You can't be like 'Oh somebody's over there getting bullied, let's just walk away and turn around and make sure that nobody saw us looking," said the 13-year-old.
"You have to go up there and fix the situation, let a supervisor know and fix the problem because you never know what's going to happen."
The conference included current and former classmates who helped run activities and spoke to the crowd of 70 students, grades 5 to 7, from six schools.
Grade 7 Van Bien student Haily Ramsey was said kids are more likely to listen when the conversation is coming from people their age.
"When I hear an adult talking, half of the students just daze off and talk to their friends, but when kids are talking I usually pay attention," said Ramsey, who helped organize the event over the course of more than a month.
Added Stearns of student speakers, "you felt like you were actually interacting with them because they're the same age."
They said activities like the human knot – where kids hold hands and tangle themselves, then talk it out until the group is a perfect circle – subtly reinforce the concept of inclusion.
"Everyone gets to fit in," Ramsey said. "Lots of people are shy. It shows them that everyone is supportive and it's okay if you mess up. It show that everyone can work together."
Marnie Alexander is a community co-ordinator at Harwin Elementary, one of the six schools that took part in Friday's conference. Alexander said many of the youth don't come from structured homes and face difficult home-life situations. "They are amazing," she said. "They have so many barriers but they're outstanding."
Much of the work Alexander does is based on the idea of prevention.
"If you build it they will come," said Alexander, referring to the programming like the student conferences.
She said teaching leadership is important to foster confidence – and she sees the student leaders taking on that responsibility.
"They really run our schools," Alexander said.
Seventeen-year-old Joanna Garcia said she knows from experience what leadership lessons can do for a person.
"In high school it opened up so many doors for me," said Garcia, who is in her last year at Prince George Secondary School.
It helped her become a cheerleading captain, supervisor at Starbucks and she said it makes a difference on her university applications.
"Leadership is just the foundation of all of that. It really makes you a different kind of person and you're able to deal with a lot more issues appropriately."
Prince George Citizen
December 1, 2014
Samantha WRIGHT ALLEN – Citizen Staff – firstname.lastname@example.org