Gloria Rockhold, community engagement manager for Albemarle County Public Schools, speaks during the 5th annual Youth-Nex Conference. Credit: Credit: David Zhao

As the United States’ demographics diversify, so too do the nation’s youth.

How best to engage with these young people was the subject of a conference this week hosted by Youth-Nex, a University of Virginia center promoting effective youth development. This year’s conference — the fifth annual — was titled Youth of Color Matter: Reducing Inequalities through Positive Youth Development.

“Positive youth development is an important topic because it pushes us to think about youths’ capacities and strengths rather than a more traditional focus on youths’ ‘problem behaviors,’” said Joanna Lee Williams, an associate professor at UVa. “There’s real value in viewing youth as collaborators and contributors to change.”

Last year’s conference focused on afterschool programming. Williams said shifting the focus this year to youth of color is socially relevant.

“We’re in the midst of a national dialogue on race that has been catalyzed in large part by the ugly but all-too-common manifestations of structural racism,” Williams said. “By focusing on youth of color in particular, we’re forced to consider the role that context — both structures and institutions, as well as beliefs and attitudes — plays in taking away youths’ opportunities to thrive.”

As for creating opportunities for young people to thrive, three of the Charlottesville-Albemarle area’s top community builders shared their approaches.

Speaking about civic engagement among immigrant and undocumented youth, Gloria Rockhold, community engagement manager for Albemarle County Public Schools, stressed the importance of engaging with families. While challenges to this range from poverty to cultural experience, Rockhold cautioned school systems against making assumptions.

“Family engagement in most Latino cultures means that you don’t go to a school unless they call you, but here you’re expected to come to the school,” she said.

To address this, Rockhold runs an afterschool program, called The Academy, in the Southwood Mobile Home Park, and encourages the children to bring their family members along.

Wes Bellamy, who teaches at Albemarle High School and is running for Charlottesville City Council, said he hopes to provide more African-American young people the chance to succeed academically. For example, through 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, Bellamy participates in M-Cubed, a summer mathematics academy for African-American students.

“We know that if you are a young male and you take algebra in the seventh grade or eighth grade … we know that there is a high likelihood that you could go to college,” Bellamy said.

Sarad Davenport directs City of Promise, an organization focused on improving outcomes in Charlottesville’s Westhaven, 10th and Page and Starr Hill neighborhoods. A Charlottesville native, Davenport’s program offers parental empowerment classes, mentoring and a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math lab for students to visit after school.

“It’s important to realize that the young people we are talking about are real human beings,” Davenport said. “How students get engaged in school isn’t just that they go to school, it’s that they have a community of support around them.”

Bellamy and Rockhold agreed.

“We have to think about how we celebrate success and progress,” he said.

“If the families model engagement, then the children will follow,” Rockhold said. “Even if it’s not their biological family, even if it’s their community.”

Reflecting on the larger impact the two-day conversation, which wrapped up Friday, can spur, Williams expressed hope.

“Focusing on youth from historically stigmatized groups brings attention to issues of race in the field of positive youth development,” Williams said, “but the ideas for action generated by having this conversation are ultimately beneficial to all youth, not just youth of color.”