Approximately 90 African American high school students from across California convened on the campus of California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) earlier this month for African American Leaders for Tomorrow (AALT), a multi-day conference intended to prepare the next generation of African American Californians to take leadership roles in their communities. This was the fourth year CSUDH has hosted the event in partnership with members of the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC).
…I think that a great leader, a true leader, is someone who not only influences others and the masses, but also influences and inspires themselves.”
“I don’t know who’s here, maybe the next African American POTUS (President of the United States),” said State Senator Holly Mitchell in welcoming participants during the opening dinner, “but we’re (CLBC) clear that we have a responsibility to you to tap into the resources that we have access to as elected officials to create opportunities and promise for you.”
CSUDH President Willie J. Hagan encouraged the teens to take the information and inspiration they receive during AALT to begin to change the context in which African Americans are viewed. He shared a story of when he was an associate vice president at a university and one evening while leaving campus, a man mistook him for the custodian, despite the fact that Hagan was dressed in a suit and was carrying a briefcase.
“Why it is important to have more female and black leaders in education, in the community, in politics, is that people begin to see you in that environment,” he said. “As time goes by and we see more women and minorities as leaders in these various places, then the context by which you are viewed is different.
“This conference is called African American Leaders for Tomorrow; in reality, we can’t wait until tomorrow,” he continued. “You guys are old enough to be leaders now. In your schools there are a lot of issues that you know about that you need to take a leadership role in; you need to see how you can influence others to accomplish goals that are important to you.”
Over the course of three days, the students connected with CSUDH students and staff to talk about college preparedness and college life, and had group discussions with community organizers and elected officials about leadership and empowerment.
One such elected official was 25-year-old Stockton Councilman Michael Tubbs, who at 21 became the youngest elected official in Stockton history. Tubbs used the story of David and Goliath, and the example of the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights movement to stress upon the AALT participants that they aren’t too young to make change.
“We often think as young people we have to wait until a better day or until we’re older, until we have more degrees, or until we’re more experienced, but that’s not true,” said Tubbs. “The only limits that exist are the limits we place on ourselves.”
On the first day of the conference, incoming high school seniors Trejon Shelton, from Los Angeles, and Trevor Tillman, from San Diego, said they were looking forward to networking with their peers from across the state, and with adults in leadership roles. Both are already leaders in their own right: Shelton is on the student council and a lead in his school choir. Tillman is learning leadership skills through the Sports Training Academics Recreation Police Athletic League program through the San Diego Police Department. Both said they hoped to learn more about what it takes to be a leader. By Friday, they said those expectations were met, and much more.
“It has been awesome,” Tillman said. “I’ve never been in a room with so many intelligent black people. I’m inspired.”
Shelton said he learned something new about leadership: “As a leader, you don’t want to be just directing the people; you want to get their ideas and be open to what they have to say.”
Dene Judkins, who lives in Los Angeles and will be a high school junior in the coming year, heard about AALT through my mom and thought it would be “real cool” to be surrounded by other like-minded African-American youth.
“My school is not very diverse— it’s diverse, it just doesn’t have many African Americans—so I thought it would be cool to do a weekend with people who I know I could relate to,” she said. “Also because I always take leadership roles in pretty much everything I do; it’s like a big part of my life. So I was thinking this would help me become a better leader.
“I think the entire weekend was really insightful. I learned a lot about leadership. I came to the realization that a leader is suppose to influence and inspire others, but I think that a great leader, a true leader, is someone who not only influences others and the masses, but also influences and inspires themselves. If you don’t believe in what you’re saying and how you’re leading others, then nobody’s going to follow you.”