The New England Youth Identity Summit

Last April, more than 300 young people from across Maine and New England, along with their teachers and parents, gathered for the second annual New England Youth Identity Summit (NEYIS). The weekend event included an evening of powerful performances, a full day of mostly student-led workshops, and a reading by 2012 presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco, all focused on a central theme: the power of stories.

The Summit was co-sponsored by Waynflete School (ME) and Maine Seeds of Peace, an organization dedicated to promoting understanding and justice through dialogue.

On Friday evening, Eugene Butler, a Seeds of Peace senior counselor and emcee for the evening, began with a medley of original spoken word pieces about his coming-of-age experiences of race in America. Other performers included Maine’s own Theater Ensemble of Color, the Sudanese dance group Sudo Girls, and Seeds of Peace student vocalists and poets. Maine Inside Out, a theater group composed of young people from Long Creek Youth Development Center, performed the finale, which was titled “Do You See Me?”

On Saturday morning, students participated in dialogue sessions, each focused on a specific aspect of the student experience. Student Summit planners partnered with local youth groups to plan the more than 30 sessions, which also brought adults, educators, and community leaders into the conversations. The Telling Room, Youth Engagement Partners, NAMI’s Youth Advisory Council, King Fellows, Maine Youth Court, MIST (Muslim Interscholastic Tournament), NPR’s Maine Youth Voices, Preble Street Resource, and Skew-ME (a nonprofit supporting learning differences) helped craft sessions in which ideas were both presented and challenged, eliciting the kinds of conversations that are too often avoided.

In the Waynflete student-led workshop about starting racial awareness groups in schools, student leaders grappled with just how difficult community dialogue can be. Reflecting on that session, one participant remarked, “I learned how to not be afraid to speak or stand up for something that I am passionate about and how to support others when they are being treated wrongly. These conversations need to occur more often and need to make people conscious and uncomfortable.”

In addition to Mr. Blanco, keynote events included Portland’s chief of police in dialogue with students, activist Nicole Maines (whose story is highlighted in the book Becoming Nicole) speaking about her experience as a transgender student, and a panel facilitated by Maine Law School Dean Danielle Conway on the emerging Black Lives Matter movement on high school and university campuses. The gathering closed with a speak-out session facilitated by Eric Axelman and Oliver Arias of the bicultural hip-hop group Funk Underground.

“The Summit provided a meaningful outlet for all the angst that is bottled up inside,” says Geoff Wagg, head of school at Waynflete. “There is no higher calling than to give our students—and many beyond the walls of Waynflete—a voice and the power to make a difference in our world.”

The next New England Youth Identity Summit will be held at Waynflete April 6–7, 2018.