By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Fourteen students attended the 2019 Indiana Latino Leadership Conference (ILLC) at IU Bloomington, accompanied by faculty members Dr. Veronica Medina and Dr. Jennifer Ortiz.
The conference, now in its 20th year, cultivates the exchange of ideas, values and beliefs in order to promote scholarship, leadership, cultural awareness and community.
The conference focuses on Latino-related topics, it is open to everyone, and benefits from a variety of perspectives. It is unique in that it brings together students from the high school, undergraduate and graduate level.
Student-led workshops covered a gamut of practical topics, from college readiness and the application process to financial literacy and leadership skills.
Other fun and interactive sessions including workshops on the importance and power of personal storytelling, tools and techniques for advocacy and how to spread awareness through Latin dance.
“The conference is a celebratory space that affirms our–Latinx students, staff and faculty–cultural backgrounds and our right to exist and thrive in educational spaces,” said Medina. “It provides a space for Latinx students to confront shared struggles, to develop skills such as networking and advocacy, to learn about various issues the Latinx population faces, and to celebrate the diversity within the Latinx population.”
Medina, an associate professor of sociology, attended with two students last year, and was so inspired enough to gather a larger contingent for this year’s event. One of those students, Ashley Lopez, a political science major and aspiring lawyer, actively recruited fellow students for the trip.
“ILLC is a student-driven conference and student involvement is key in all stages, from planning to execution, even to determining the conference theme and finalizing workshops and presentations,” Medina said. “Besides being an affirmative, celebratory, and empowering cultural experience, it’s also a great leadership experience that culminates in students networking and exchanging information and ideas with other students from across the state.”
The conference was an eye-opener for Lyric Jackson, a sophomore from Louisville, Ky. majoring in sociology and president of the Multicultural Student Union.
“I went because you don’t see a lot of Latinos in leadership positions, and there’s not a lot of talk about it,” Jackson said. “The conference helps us learn ways to bridge gaps between our generations and establish our communities, how to advocate for ourselves and how to lead.”
Next year, for the very first time, IU Southeast will host the event, which will be known as the Indiana Latinx Leadership Conference.
“Latinx is a more inclusive term that reflects, affirms and makes visible the gender diversity within the population,” Medina said.
That attention to the evolving nature of the Latinx community is what makes the conference vital and also educationally formative, according to Ortiz, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice.
“The conference is important because it gives students a sense of empowerment,” Ortiz said.
For Jose Aponte, a graduate student pursuing a Master of Interdisciplinary Studies degree, that sense of empowerment is critical to developing leadership skills in communities of color that continue to deal with legacies of marginalization and inequality.
“Being a non-traditional student, I see the value of learning leadership skills early,” Aponte said. “I obtained these skills from a career of military service, but these kinds of conferences are needed to prepare Latinx youth for a successful future.”
In a state undergoing demographic transition, it is important for Latinx youth to feel a sense of belonging, for belonging correlates to better grades and overall academic performance, according to Ortiz.
“The main takeaway from this year’s conference is that education is powerful and transformative,” Ortiz said. “Through education one can gain the power and knowledge necessary to excel in life.”
Medina and Ortiz are already busy organizing next year’s conference at IU Southeast. Students and anyone else interested in being part of this special effort should contact them directly.
Homepage photo: Ashley Lopez at the Indiana Latino Leadership Conference. Photograph by Meleena Starr.