Voices of Change Conference allows students to be heard


Photo submitted by Cornelius Rish

Students create posters to promote the Voices of Change virtual conference. These posters were put around the school to encourage students to attend.

“Following George Floyd’s murder, Stillwater Schools district administration, and staff received an Open Letter from a group of Black Alumni,” Office of Achievement and Integration Coordinator, Eric Anderson explained.  “The letter contained eight specific recommendations about the dire need to create more equitable learning environments. It emphasized cultural inclusion and respect.”

The district administration then took the letter and collaborated with Equity Specialist Cornelius Rish to create the Voices of Change Conference. There, students express their concerns about problems at school to a greater degree. 

The Voices of Change Conference falls on BLAST week. BLAST week happens during the second week of February and is held in the auditorium.

The conference offers students a safe and open environment to express their perspectives.  This year, the Voices of Change Conference has two rounds of conversation. Round one addresses climate and culture, increasing and retaining staff of color, and speaking your truth. Topics listed in round two are student advocacy, mental health, and bettering school communication.

It’s one thing to sit back and complain, but it’s another thing to then offer solutions and be a part of that solution.”

— Cornelius Rish

Last year’s conference successfully led to a big mental health initiative. District leaders and students from the Student Leadership Council began creating more resources for mentally struggling students.

They did so by hanging informational and helpline posters around the school.

“I know last year I was in the mental health one and I think a lot of students got a lot from that, based on where the resources centers are,” President of Native American Student Alliance, Abby Speckman said.

The data collected from the Voices of Change Conference is analyzed by the Student Leadership Council.  SLC then uses a Heatmap Voting system. With that, they pick out what the top 10 solutions out of 20 ideas from the conference are most impactful. Together SLC, district and building administration find strategic ways to implement said solutions.

“One of the purposes of the conference is to bring attention to the issues that students care about, in which we as adults may not be aware,” Rish explained.

“It’s one thing to sit back and complain, but it’s another thing to then offer solutions and be a part of that solution.”

The Voices of Change conference has sparked the implementation of the Ethnic and Cultural Studies course and mental health initiatives. One example is Oakland Middle School staff receiving training to better address racial harm.

All thanks to the Open Letter from Black Alumni students have an opportunity to have their voices heard and create change. The Voices of Change Conference has helped create a better cultural environment at a district-wide level.