When Teah Selkin, 18, started at Cherry Creek High as a freshman, she only knew one thing about the school — the common stereotype that Cherry Creek High School is a school for rich, white kids. As a Samoan and a first-generation American with a single mother, she didn’t fit the mold.
She thought that in order to fit in, she would have to make a fake persona. But by the end of her sophomore year, she had forced herself to get more involved and realized the school in Greenwood Village was anything but homogeneous.
That year, she found the Cherry Creek Diversity Conference, an event designed for students to strategize on how to create a safe and welcoming learning environment across the state’s high schools and communities.
“This conference has helped me realize that in this world, there are voices that will try to tell us that certain people, certain identities don’t belong. That they aren’t valued,” Selkin said at the 26th annual Cherry Creek Diversity Conference held Feb. 2. “But we are responsible for combating these false narratives.”
Selkin co-chaired this year’s event with Highlands Ranch student Zoe Siegal, 16.
Siegal said before joining the conference she had a difficult time expressing herself and showcasing her uniqueness.
“I used to live life feeling like I could only be myself in certain places,” she said. “I felt like I could only be Jewish at temple or only Chinese at home.”
More than 1,000 teenagers from 105 Colorado high schools and youth organizations throughout the state attended this year’s event, which was hosted by the Cherry Creek School District; organized by Youth Celebrate Diversity, a Denver-based nonprofit organization; and underwritten with a donation by RBC Wealth Management.
While most people associate the word “diversity” with ethnicity or race, the conference deals a wide range of topics, including cliques, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental challenges, multicultural art and music, socioeconomic concerns and teenage social problems.
“This unique event provides students with an open forum to discuss the social issues affecting them in their daily lives,” said Caleb Munro, executive director of Youth Celebrate Diversity. “The event fills a gap left by standardized high school education that often avoids controversial topics, leaving teens to figure these issues out on their own. We believe that through communication, collaboration and positive support, school environments can improve so that everyone is able to achieve, academically.”
The conference started in 1994 under the leadership of Janet Sammons, now chair of the board of directors for Youth Celebrate Diversity, when 18 schools gathered. Now the conference has grown into the largest diversity event for teenagers in Colorado.
Marcus McDavid, assistant principal at Cherry Creek High, was a member of the first diversity council. He addressed students at this year’s conference telling them, “your voice matters — and my hope is that you walk away from today knowing that what you do matters.”
Throughout the day, student and adult participants broke out into discussion groups and workshops to address respect and diversity issues in their schools. Among the 42 workshops offered were “Left versus Right: Politics and Diversity,” focusing on providing students with skills and strategies for respectfully engaging others in political dialogue across difference.
Additional breakouts focused on religious diversity; sustaining youth activism; understanding immigrants and immigration; and youth homelessness.
Dakota Ridge High senior Jasmine Davis said last year was a hard year for her, but when she came to the conference, it was the first time she ever felt like she was accepted, loved and understood.
This year, Davis was part of the student-run planning committee for the event and performed a spoken word piece titled, “In this body.”
“I got tired of people telling me that everything was wrong because of my identity — all my identities,” Davis said, explaining that as a bisexual, biracial woman, she is a triple minority. “I wanted to say how angry I get every time there’s backlash about me fighting about my identities, my equality… Every time I experience this I just want to tell them we’re all equal; we’re all beautiful; we’re all fighting for the same thing. The message is supposed to be empowerment — taking yourself from the victim to the person who fights.”
This is the first year the conference was planned solely by students. Another first for the conference was to have a keynote speaker who is transgender.
“It’s a huge thing,” Selkin said. “We thought that there wasn’t a lot of representation in the transgender community especially in our schools.”
The keynote speech was delivered by Paula Stone Williams, a transgender pastor and internationally known speaker on gender equity and LGBTQ advocacy. Williams’ recent TED talk had over half a million views in its first 48 hours, and her TEDxMileHigh talk on gender equity has had more than 1.7 million views on YouTube.
Williams talked to the students about the heroes journey.
“Every human being on earth has been called onto the heroes journey,” she said. “The question isn’t were you called or not, the question is if you have the courage and authenticity to answer the call — to be willing to go onto the road of trials and into the deep dark night.”
Williams told the students they have all answered the call by attending the conference and they have the power to create change in their communities.
“You know it’s important to be agents of change, to make a difference, to live authentically, to change the world,” she continued. “And you know you have the capacity to do it. ... Every single human being has dignity regardless of their gender, regardless of their sexual identity. Every single person regardless of their race, regardless of their religion, every person should have dignity and you are the ones that are going to do it.”