Reflections on National Summer Learning Association’s Youth Leadership Conference

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest” – Benjamin Franklin

This quote from Benjamin Franklin resonates with me as I reflect on National Summer Learning Association’s Youth Leadership Conference. NSLA hosted over 30 students and their mentors from across the country for a week of learning, advocacy, leadership, and fun in Washington DC.

From the moment I walked into American University to begin the program, I felt the energy, community, and strength of the group. Throughout the week, this strength only grew as students participated in challenges ranging from creating a video project for PBS, to speaking with the offices of Senators at the Capitol, to tackling social issues as a group late into the evening.

I was lucky to attend this conference with one of our Ward 4 scholars, and she shared the following takeaways from the week:

  • It’s okay to step back to look at the whole picture
  • Teamwork is always a good choice
  • Stand up for what you believe in
  • Summer is a key time of year for people in need

I left the conference with three takeaways of my own.

  1. The first is the intelligence and drive of the scholars who were in attendance this week. I was blown away by the accomplishments of the students: from creating dresses from recycled materials to starting their own non-profit, everyone brought something to the table. They were all willing to learn, grow, and challenge themselves as they strived to be successful young leaders.
  2. My second takeaway is the impact that social injustices have on youth. As we spoke with members of Congress and their staff, scholars passionately shared about their educational programs, their communities, and themselves. Advocating for programs that offer year-round food, care, and community allowed students to speak out about injustices they see and experience. While some noted that these impassioned speeches fell on deaf ears, we all felt empowered to continue to fight for the issues discussed in the meetings.
  3. Lastly, I want to reflect on my experience with restorative justice during this week. On one day of the conference, a comment regarding race made a visible impact. After some discussion, the mentors decided to hold a restorative justice circle. Those affected by the comments sat in a circle with their mentors and listened to each other speak one at a time. While emotions in the room were high—the discussion covered issues stemming from ignorance, societal norms, and overarching systemic issues—the intelligence, maturity, and passion for social justice of scholars shined. I commend every student and mentor for having these difficult conversations and for acknowledging that we wouldn’t solve them all in one night. The topics we discussed are often tip-toed around, or completely ignored, and our middle and high schoolers approached the conversations with grace and poise.

This week reminded me that talented young people are everywhere, and that we can use our voices to bring about justice. It is conferences like the one put on by the National Summer Learning Association, and programs like Higher Achievement that will change our future as a nation. Scholars are strong, smart, empowered, and angered by the gaps in education that they have faced—reminding me of a lesson that I have learned over and over: never underestimate the power of kids.

– Brid Freiberg
Program Support Fellow