More than 300 high school students gathered at the Edmonds Center for the Arts Wednesday to attend the Edmonds School District’s first annual Becoming Leaders of Change conference.
District Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas welcomed students as they made their way into the theater, thanking them for spending the day wanting to learnhow to become better leaders in the world. He then began the conference by telling students how he grew up.
Born in Mount Vernon, Washington, Balderas’ family lived in a labor camp that at one time was a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Everyone in the family picked strawberries in the nearby fields to support themselves.
“Growing up, I never saw teachers or coaches that looked like me,” he said. “Not until my third year of college. I never once thought I would end up becoming a superintendent for a school, because I never saw people that looked like me [in those positions]. That is why representation matters. When I look out here, you are the future of us.”
Balderas urged the students to listen in order to learn.
The first speaker of the morning was Dolores Huerta, an American labor leader and civil rights activist who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Huerta and Cesar Chavez co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which later merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to become the United Farm Workers.
Huerta received a standing ovation as she walked onto the stage.
The 92-year-old speaker thanked the students for joining her and being so passionate about making a difference for the “little guys” of the world. She spoke about how important being a leader in today’s world is, more than any other time in history.
“I’ve heard lots of students say, ‘I wish I was born in the ‘60s because there was so much going on,’” Huerta said. “Well, let me tell you – this is like the ‘60s on steroids. We need you. The world needs you [now] more than ever.”
Huerta talked about how divided society is, and how big corporations are trying to keep things that way. Keeping people divided, she said, prevents important changes from being made. She noted that 90% of the world’s wealth is in the hands of 10% of the world’s wealthiest corporations. Because of this, those companies are the only ones able to call the shots.
This monopolization of people’s thoughts has mostly been driven by wealth, according to Huerta. The more corporations can control the way people think, the more money they can direct into their own pockets. Huerta said these are not real leaders, and she urged students to not have this sort of materialistic mindset. After all, she said, there’s no money or physical riches to be made in leading for change.
“You never see a hearse with a U-Haul attached to it,” she said. “When you leave this earth, leave a legacy of justice, [not things].”
Keeping the people divided has worked until this point – but Huerta said more people are waking up and realizing that working together is now the only way to see change.
“[Being only] one person in the world, it’s very hard to do anything,” she said. “But when we work together, we can do anything. We the people. We the many.”
However, those changes only come when strong leaders put in hard work to make them happen. Huerta said she worked tirelessly for years, and when she got knocked down, she didn’t sit in the dirt and give up. She got back up and tried something new, knowing if she didn’t, no one else would.
“You can’t sit back and wait for somebody to do it for you, because they won’t,” she said. “We have the power to make the changes that need to be made.”
Huerta also encouraged the students to make mistakes. Making mistakes is great, as long as you learn from them. She told students when they fail, to use it as a learning experience and try a different approach next time. Leaders don’t let failure stop them.
In closing, Huerta urged students to take advantage of their learning opportunities while they have them. Having access to books, the internet and professionals willing to help in a school setting should be seen as a blessing, rather than a drag. Good leaders need to be educated so they can better make decisions and know how to better lead others who may not have had the same access to education.
“Education is the soul of our country,” Huerta said.
As she concluded, Huerta had the audience stand up and chant with her: “Who’s got the power?” “We’ve got the power.” “What kind of power?” “People power.”
She received another lengthy standing ovation and cheers as she exited the stage.
Afterward, students broke into various focus groups highlighting different aspects of leadership. Students then returned to the theater after lunch to review what they had learned and how they would further apply it in their everyday lives.
Edmonds-Woodway High School senior Isabel Vergara Ramos said this experience was life-changing. Having done a report on Dolores Huerta in school, Ramos was thrilled at the chance to be able to meet her in person.
Ramos also said the conference taught her life skills she didn’t expect to learn.
“I’m honestly really shy,” she said. “So, if it weren’t for planning this whole thing, I never would have seen myself getting up on stage.”
Balderas said months of planning have gone into this conference, and he’s glad to see it finally happening. Originally scheduled for October 2021, the event had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he was still unsure it would take place when they rescheduled it.
With more than 300 students attending the first-ever conference, he hopes it grows with every year it’s hosted.
“That’s our goal, that’s our mission and that’s what we’ll do,” Balderas said. “Make it bigger and better every year.”
Balderas said having the school district’s Student Advisory Committee help plan the conference was a great way to involve students. Many times, he said, staff believe they know what the students are thinking, but they often miss the mark. By having direct student involvement, the district was able to have speakers and group discussions focused on what students really wanted and needed.
Balderas said his hope is that students obtained skills at the conference that will help them excel in every aspect of their lives.
“I want students to be able to go into the world prepared,” he said. “Not only academically, but I want them to be able to advocate for themselves. And I hope this conference will help them do that.”
— Story and photos by Lauren Reichenbach