In early November, I found myself on a plane wondering what exactly I was doing. It’s not like this was a shock (I had spent the night before packing, and the month before knowing), but it suddenly occurred to me that I had no clue what was in store. We were going to the Youth Leadership Conference in Anchorage, a meeting Cordova’s student council members had gone to for many years before a lapse. We started again last year, but I couldn’t help but feel like a guinea pig. I glanced back to the two other people who would be going on the trip- Paoola Vargas as a chaperone and Zoe Russin as the other student- to try and soothe my nerves. Mrs. Vargas had been on the trip last year, certainly she knew what was going on. Of course, she was three rows behind me and I wasn’t about to shout, “Mrs. Vargas, Mrs. Vargas, what am I doing here?” despite the temptation.
The conference took place in the Hilton hotel, a daunting place for anyone who doesn’t wear business suits as casual clothing. After breakfast, everyone gathered for the first meeting. All the participants sat in a circle of chairs, either fidgeting or talking and laughing, depending on whether or not they’d come here before. Zoe and I fell into the ‘fidgeting’ category. I stared out the window in an attempt to find birds (there were none) until the coordinators walked in.
The tone they set endured the entire conference. Before they even told us what we were doing, they began to laugh and joke with some of the students they knew from previous years. Eventually one came to the center and said, “You guys all look tired! Wanna play a game to get the juices flowing?” The conference veterans cheered and shouted out suggestions. The rest of us sat confused. Wasn’t this a serious conference about very serious things, to be spoken about in serious tones?
The answer, we discovered, was yes and no. We discussed the future of education in Alaska. We played games. We brainstormed plans to reduce problems relating to violence and drug abuse in our communities with school board members from across the state. We wrote poems to perform at the school board banquet. We listened to speakers from the Alaska government and asked them questions relating to their stance on education and how they plan to ensure Alaskan schools stay strong despite the financial crises. We painted rocks in an art class. We found people just as interested in making positive change as we were. We learned. We made friends.
Of course, that’s simplifying it. Not all the speakers were from the government, but all were inspiring. We met Gene Tagaban, a storyteller and mentor who taught us about the importance of knowing our own history to understand others, how we can stay positive in a negative world, and why you should wiggle your fingers and whisper “awesome” to strangers (we tried this with mixed results). Two of the classes were about storytelling, one by Konrad Frank on telling your own story and one by Trey Losey of Diff3r3nt by D3sign, a spoken word poet.
It’s easy to ask us what exactly we got out of it and expect something concrete. Certainly, we did do tangible things. We fundraised for a scholarship through both a silent and traditional auction. We wrote out action plans for our communities. All the same, what we learned was just as valuable as the scholarship money we raised. We learned how to see the details of the big picture. We learned how to make change. We learned that we’re not alone in our efforts. And when I got back onto that plane, you can be sure I knew exactly what I’d be doing when I got home.