Representatives from every public and private high school in Loudoun, as well as delegates from the home-schooled population, convened at Fox Cinemas in Brambleton Thursday to discuss the concept of diversity and plan concrete ways to embrace it. More than 300 students attended the fourth annual Step Up Loudoun.
"I think of Step Up as kind of a big brainstorming event," said Jessica Salomon, a senior at Briar Woods High School and co-chair of the special events committee of the Youth Advisory Council’s Board of Governors. She said the event is a chance to involve students who aren’t on the Advisory Council and to bring adult leaders into contact with teens. "And you get to get out of school, so that’s a pretty good incentive," she said.
Salomon said that the event centers around different topics each year. Last year, her group discussed healthy alternatives to risky lifestyles.
George Mason University came up with the topic by conducting a survey of the county’s teens, said Jennifer Jackson of Loudoun Youth Initiative, which organizes the event.
"At least once a year, we needed to bring together community leaders, business leaders and government leaders with the kids," said Tim Chesnutt, director of the Loudoun Youth Initiative.
The adults led groups of students in discussions about subjects such as "acceptance and understanding" and "community and belonging." Among the activities the groups planned were a two-day event, a cultural pavilion at the county’s next Youth Fest, an advertising and marketing campaign, and programs to provide after-school activities.
THE KEYNOTE SPEAKER for the event was Dr. Adolph Brown III, who showed up wearing his 17-year-old son’s "thug" clothes, including a baseball hat, "do-rag" and oversized jacket and pants. "Some of you frowned at me and that didn’t make me feel too good," he told the crowd of students. "What if this were my family’s idea of business attire?" In a perfect world, he said, he would be able to walk into a bank in such an outfit and get a loan.
He told students to recognize that "the tree is in the seed. But not every seed gets the same amount of sun." However, he said he had learned long ago from his grandfather that he would be judged by the way he spoke and presented himself, and he discouraged the teens from wearing do-rags.
He took off his outfit to reveal a suit underneath.
Brown was born into poverty and is now an author, business consultant, television personality, professor, psychotherapist, family therapist and karate and kickboxing instructor.
"Don’t confuse diversity with accepting things that are substandard," he said, encouraging students to hang out with "only quality people. If you’re the smartest person in your clique, find a new clique."
He told the teens to help others, particularly students in their schools who might not have as much support as the students selected as delegates to Step Up and might not look like them.
"Broaden your definition of diversity," he said. "It doesn’t just mean ethnicity." He talked about the diversity in his own family of nine, including the son who wears the clothes in which Brown started his talk and wants to rap, and the daughter who has an IQ in the top 95 percentile of the population but has "no common sense. She needs people like you to give her a lift." He noted that his 9-year-old son is a "know-it-all" and that his 7-year-old daughter has the vocabulary of a fifth-grader, as well as cerebral palsy. "People make a lot of judgments about our Dana," said Brown, noting that he had already learned more from her than any of his other children.
AT THE END of the program, Supervisor Steve Snow (R-Dulles), who spearheaded the Loudoun Youth Initiative, told the teens to spread the messages they had heard that day. "I want you to be able to carry that to your homes and to your communities," he said. Snow emphasized the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity, whether it be a car accident or losing an election.
"I think it was a great experience," said Javier Benitez, a sophomore at the Douglass School. "I’m glad I got the opportunity. I feel ready to go out and do something." He said he especially enjoyed "all the interaction with people. That was the point of the thing."
Dylan Bosserman, a freshman at Loudoun County High School, said his favorite part of the day was Brown’s presentation. He said his group, which consisted of four adults and a few college students, as well as the teens, came up with a multicultural "festival-parade-fair."
A group of students from Park View High School agreed that the highlight of the day had been Brown’s talk. "I took away that we should accept people as they are and maybe get to know them better," said freshman Muhammad Ali Chohan.
Sophomore David Burkel said he had expected the group work to be boring but found that it wasn’t. "I didn’t know so many people were involved in the community until I came here," he said.
"It’s nice to know something we’re talking about is going to have an impact on the community," said senior Katrina Miles. She said it had been decided that Park View would be involved in a community fund-raiser to support some of the activities planned that day, and junior Katherine Ventura said that the day’s work would be a subject at the next meeting of the Student Council Association.