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Project Footsteps participants work together in groups during a community forum Tuesday afternoon in Worthington. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)
Project Footsteps participants work together in groups during a community forum Tuesday afternoon in Worthington. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

Students at forefront of local program addressing race

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news Worthington, 56187

Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- Youth Making Changes (YMC), a Nobles County Integration Collaborative (NCIC) afterschool program for high school students, hosted a community event Tuesday to foster dialogue about race relations and student leadership.

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The event was coordinated in partnership with Project Footsteps, a youth empowerment organization that helps students take an active role in their community.

Eighth-graders were invited to hear current YMC students talk about their experiences in high school and the solutions they see.

NCIC contacted Project Footsteps two years ago to see if it was interested in working in Worthington. The nonprofit organization is involved in multiple communities around the Midwest, as it helps students address the problems they see in their schools.

"After holding multiple leadership retreats and workshops last year, a group of students decided to form Youth Making Changes to focus on how they can make changes in the community," NCIC Integration and Youth Development Coordinator Lakeyta Potter said. "Youth Making Changes is the youth-led program that came out of working with Project Footsteps."

Miranda Brist, Project Footsteps youth program facilitator, attended Tuesday's event. She helps students develop action plans and serves as the go-between for students and Project Footsteps.

Brist explained that the most common problems she hears about in schools are related to bullying and racial tension.

"One of the most amazing things about Project Footsteps is that they take the time to listen to students and they find that students are usually really holding back a lot," Brist said. "Students are the hidden experts in the community, because they know a lot more than they are letting on. If they are experiencing something -- a problem in their school -- they should have the power to deal with that problem.

"The end goal is to help student to gather as a group and create mini-organizations and fulfill action projects in their community based on projects that are important to them," she added.

YMC member Desalegn Zemenfes helped organize Tuesday's event and said he would consider himself one of the organization's leaders.

"We try to do a lot of stuff at school concerning our goal," he explained. "In our school, we don't want expectations to be based on race or ethnicity, and we're trying to change the racist things that are going on in our school and make it better.

"It's opened up what is really going on in our school," he added. "You don't really think about bullying and thing like that going on in our school."

Zemenfes has experienced racial bullying and has seen other students targeted by it, but said students often brush it off.

"When kids make racist comments you try to blend in or just laugh at it, because they say it as a joke," he said, "but maybe someone takes it serious."

Netsanet Zemenfes, now a junior, came to Worthington when she was 11 and only spoke Amharic. She said she struggled to make friends in the high school as she learned English. Now that she had found her place, she said she wants to help eighth-graders who are coming into the high school have a smoother transition.

Elizabeth Sterling, an AmeriCorps promise fellow at NCIC, helps coordinate YMC and attributes the partnership of Project Footsteps to the positive growth she has seen in the YMC students.

"I've been most proud of specific students coming out of their shell and talking about the issues that bother them," Sterling said. "When they started, they were so quiet and shy and scared and afraid to talk about real stuff. Now, they can talk about those issues."

Daily Globe Reporter Alyson Buschena may be reached at 376-7322.

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