On Thursday, 75 students from schools across the Los Angeles Unified School District participated in an online social justice conference hosted in a city-like virtual world called “Topia,” in collaboration with Heroes of Color, a Valencia-based company promoting inclusion and diversity through the arts.
“In the Middle of the Movement: The Revolutionary Act of Collective Freedom Dreaming, Planning and Doing” gave BIPOC seventh and eighth graders an interactive opportunity to network and engage through discussion, spoken word, listening to keynote addresses and panel discussions. According to the Director of Community Transformation with LAUSD Anthony Jackson, the conference was “meant to amplify the voices of our middle school students and encourage them to liberate and transform themselves, their schools, and the world so that they thrive.”
The idea came after the Director of Equity, Inclusion and Community at the Mirman School Dr. Tunette Powell gathered a team of like-minded administrators to host a virtual social justice conference. The Heroes of Color founder and animator of the conference, David Heredia, was brought on the project shortly afterward with the intention to make the conference more creative for students, themselves weary after a year of at-home learning via Zoom.
Heredia said it’s often hard to create a space that will keep middle schoolers engaged. As his creative juices began to flow, he thought of creating a game with an educational element included.
“When you think about a conference you think about dozens of people, dozens of breakout rooms,” Heredia said. “Dr. Powell had an idea on what she wanted and we were meeting every week. Not just with staff but, with students. We asked them ‘if you could meet in a world, what would that look like?’”
The conference was also organized by the Los Angeles Unified HEET Network, Audubon Middle School, Bret Harte Middle School, Mirman School, New Roads School, ReThink It and Westside Neighborhood School.
What students wanted was a real world filled with green trees, beaches, and nature, Heredia said. With the click of a mouse, students could explore a world outside of their own, taking them to an interactive video or event by using their cursor. When students walked up to their peers, they were greeted with the other students’ faces in a square box in the middle of their screen. Students were able to connect and chat with one another.
“This conference will empower our students… to build a consciousness that creates action against systems that facilitate racism, and to understand that their youth, their education and their commitment – that is their strength,” Rita Anne Smith, Associate Director of Admissions at Mirman School, said in a press release.
Panel discussions featured former Black Panther Party leader Ericka Huggins and activist David Turner, manager of the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition.
Going forward, Heredia said the group would be interested in events like the social justice conference, but for now they are focusing on the impact the virtual space has had on the students.
“It’s just so exciting seeing all this come to life and being able to walk around and see everyone’s face,” Noah Johnson, a seventh-grade student involved in the project, said. “I learned it is never too young to be socially aware and help people in need.”