Developing Future Leaders Through History

Developing Future Leaders Through History

School buses, minivans and SUVS are dropping of kids as they begin the new school year. It seems like summer breaks are getting shorter, so it is prudent, if not imperative, to make sure that summer vacation experiences also have value. The Youth With a Future leadership program is doing just that, and while the number of student participants is relatively small, the impact of the program aims to be big. This summer, in late July and early August, six students capped off their summer with a trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. (NMAAHC), as well as visits to the Holocaust Museum and Howard and Georgetown Universities.  

When asked, ‘what did you do on your summer vacation?, who can say they saw the dress Rosa Parks wore when she was arrested or Chuck Berry’s cherry red 1973 El Dorado Cadillac convertible? These are just a few of the more than 3,500 artifacts and exhibit displays covering 600 years at the museum. The purpose of this excursion east was to show these students their history, what people have gone through for equality and progress, and to examine how that will inform their futures.  
Before they left, the students met at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in July, and were challenged to think about:
•What did we do?
•What are we doing?
•What will you do?

It’s instructive for everyone to think about this as we make choices and grow into adulthood and careers. So it is important to see and know about the Stearman biplane Tuskegee Airmen used in flight instruction, or the Woolworth’s counter from Greensboro, NC where young people sat in protest of Jim Crow laws. Our stories of accomplishment and contribution are woven throughout history. This trip gave these students an opportunity to delve further beyond the highlights of the scourge of slavery and the civil rights movement.
Given recent events, these critical questions are that much more important. Despite efforts to frighten and minimize our experience and contributions – earlier this year, two nooses were found in the NMAAHC exhibits. This new treasure for the country is undaunted in presenting our history to everyone. It’s the hardest ticket to get in Washington D.C. and more than one million attendees have visited since its opening a year ago.

It is a history depicted as painful, as well as joyous, where Harriett Tubman’s hymnbook and George Clinton’s otherworldly spacecraft both are significant. The wreckage of a Portuguese slave ship, iron shackles used in the Middle Passage, glass shards from the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Birmingham Baptist Church, school desks from Hope School that served rural African American students in South Carolina, Michael Jackson’s fedora from the Victory Tour, are all items in our narrative. But what purpose do these have if they don’t inspire future generations of leaders to not be confined by how they have been defined?    
“I thought it was very impactful and important to know about because it shows you all about history, no matter what race you are. And it shows how the people lived in that time and what they had to go through.”
-Synaya Samoeun Keo-Reed, 14 East High School

“I was fascinated by all the things Black people have done and been through. The most exciting thing I learned was learning more about Black history and how it applies to me and my everyday life. Learning the struggles that my ancestors had to go through was amazing but heartbreaking.”
-Jamaika Elliot, 16, East High School

“The trip helped inspire me to be a leader through seeing all the Black firsts and how they achieved milestones for their people – my people. Seeing what it took for them to accomplish their dreams helped to inspire me to carry on their vision through mine.”
-Chayah Brown, 17, South High School
The Holocaust Museum and NMAAHC brought new and lasting perspectives, and these students came away with fresh insights and inspiration. And this is what must continue to drive us no matter who we are and where we come from. Success often does not come easily, and hardship is often necessary to goal achievement, but if we don’t know what others have done before us, how do we know where we can go. The $500M NMAAHC was made possible in part by generous private donations, from community leaders. Oprah Winfrey and Denver East High alumnus Robert F. Smith were major donor supporters who provided this gift to the country.  This is what leaders do, and Youth With a Future Executive Director Robert
Fomer is grateful for the generous large and small contributions of support that made this experience for the students possible.

We have been and are businesspeople, entertainers, inventors, athletes, scientists, doctors, educators, engineers, builders, poets, and writers.  Young people today are still faced with challenging futures, and continue to look at forging their own path first through education.  They visited Howard and Georgetown Universities to see what college is about.  At a meeting with a Georgetown representative they gained valuable advice for their preparation for college.  

“Thinking about most applications for scholarships to undergraduate institutions, whatever choices you make, you will have to write a personal narrative.  What is your story?  What is that journey?  What are the challenges?  What is it that you are most proud of? What are things within your family or your own interests that help define who you are? What are your passions? How can you live authentically in your own spirituality, faith, family? It really is about who are you.”  
-Georgetown University professor

Every one of these students is well into their own story, and like previous generations it’s up to them to determine its chapters.  Georgetown has a special tuition program for students who were descendants of the slaves who built the university and the representative noted that other major institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and UVA are also grappling with this issue. Howard University, a longstanding well-known, academic institution for African Americans, speaks volumes for itself.  Before this trip, these students may not have considered these institutions outside of Colorado as a possibility.  But at Howard, in a brief informal meeting in the hallway, a med center student told a hesitant Jamaika Elliott to “Chase your dreams!” Dreams, after all are stories created in our imaginations.  We just need to take the steps to make them a reality.  
“This trip has made me more inspired to be a leader for all the people and children who need it, and how they all are being mistreated in some way. I want to tell how to deal with those problems and to be motivated to move on. The most exciting thing I learned about was the colleges and how great they are, like the basketball team, all the famous people that went
their and how they have lots of history with African Americans.”
-Micah Ari Brown, 14, DSISD

“The most interesting thing I learned on the trip was college life, as we toured through Georgetown and Howard University. As a high-school senior myself, I was excited to learn more about college life since I’ll be sending college applications very soon. It helped me to realize what was ahead of me within the coming year of this new chapter of my life.”
-Chayah Brown, 17, South High School
“The Washington DC trip was amazing. Going to Howard made me realize that a HBCU would be a great choice for me. I never even thought of going to an HBCU and I am really considering it now. The African American museum was an eye-opening and jaw-dropping experience! I’ve learned so much about African American history in my classes but going to a museum projecting more about our history was a great thing for me. I cried, I laughed, I learned! I fell in love with history. My history.”
-Jamaika Elliott, 16, East High School

We can look forward to the individual histories these students will make for themselves.  We will need strong leaders who know their history and its significance.  
“The trip has inspired me to become a leader in my community because it has thought me that being a leader is more than just doing something for others but leading a way for future leaders.”
-Synaya Samoeun Keo-Reed, 14 East High School

“The stories I read in the Holocaust Museum had the most impact on me. It was so emotional and powerful to hear the stories from survivors. The way they had to find hope in the midst of the horrors they faced was mind blowing. They went through so much, and had to live with much more. That brings me back to this mentality the world has made up – forgive and forget. That’s not what these survivors did. They never forgot. The pain didn’t shut them down. It woke them up. They continued to live through the pain of the past, but enjoyed their future. It was truly eye opening.”
-Chayah Brown, 17, South High School

Yes, we must move forward with our eyes open and continue to confront every injustice with all the tools that we have at our disposal.  Knowing our history in the development of future leaders is fundamental, and it starts at home.  

Editor’s note: For more information or to support ongoing activities of Youth With a Future, visit and follow them on Facebook.