Civic Hope at the AASLE

The AASLE (African American Student Leadership Experience) was held in Washington, DC, in January, 2018. Joanna attended for the purpose of registering students, and had an unexpected experience upon arriving.

Tabling isn’t the most exciting form of voter engagement organizing a person can participate in. But sometimes you get a group of eager new registrants which rejuvenates your spirit, and reminds you why you began the tedious process of registering and galvanizing voters in the first place. I had one of these raffirming experiences at the Bryant Educational Leadership Group (BELG)’s African American Student Leadership Experience (AASLE), which took place in Washington, DC, earlier this year.

Maybe it was because students were induced to visit each table with promises of raffle tickets; or, perhaps it was because the students were jazzed about having just finished giving big group presentations in the previous session. Another possibility could be that these students were all simply natural leaders ready to take the first leap into democratic engagement. While I don’t know what brought the mass of eager students to my table, what I do know is that I have tabled many an event offering voter registration, and never have I been swarmed by eager students from up and down the east coast wanting to register to vote, get involved, snag one pagers, and ask mightily thoughtful questions.

According to the overview, the goal of AASLE was to continue the legacy of developing African American student leaders at PWIs and HBCUs. It was a four-day intensive experience where students will interact with prominent keynote speakers and facilitators in the area of leadership development. Students attending the experience are challenged to put theory into practice, thus having a leadership experience in real time. Challenge met.

What is it that they nourished in these kids that seems to be missing elsewhere? What I was able to piece together by speaking with Zephia Bryant, founder and CEO of BELG, and by taking an in-depth look at the documents and materials provided on the organization’s website, is that the students are wholly immersed in the experience. There are keynote speakers, gospel choirs, AASLE’s Got Talent, workouts, workshops, work sessions — you name it. From 6:30 AM until 2:00 AM, attendees were empowered to build strong relationships and push their critical thinking to the limit. It was thrilling to watch an hour and a half snippet of that process.

I am curious to know what the students have kept with them from their time at AASLE; how they would look back and reflect on the experience now. It would behoove those of us in the business of trying to shape society for the better to observe and learn from BELG and the students who are going to soon be graduates seeking to join forces with us as teammates. Let’s push ourselves to learn from these best practices, check our own assumptions, and throw all of our energy into building relationships with the next generation of changemakers.