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Community hears from Social Justice Conference keynote speaker

Bill Blackwell, Jr. at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts
Bill Blackwell, Jr. at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts

There were about 100 people in the audience at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts on Thursday, March 8 to hear the featured speaker at the School District 166 Social Justice Conference, Bill Blackwell, Jr. Audience members were attentive as Blackwell spoke about his experience as a Native American, about growing up in Cook County, and about his circuitous route to his current job as director of Bemidji State’s American Indian Resource Center.

It wasn’t hard to pay attention, Blackwell is a dynamic speaker and he interspersed his talk with jokes and comments to the many community members—and former classmates—in the audience.

He shared some of his experiences at Bemidji State and how the American Indian Resource Center works to help students succeed. And, he offered some concrete ideas on how to support our children, in school and out.

He suggested that parents and community members should:

  • Advocate for continued training for students and staff
  • Advocate for real history curriculum, not the “Disneyesque” version offered in many schools.
  • Talk to your kids…don’t let them get away with one word answers; keep asking questions
  •  Talk to them about college, early and often. Don’t say if you go to college (or Vo-Tech) say when you go.
  • Tell you kids you are proud of them
  • Tell your kids you love them (It doesn’t matter if you embarrass them, they need to hear it!)

And, while still respectful, some audience members had questions about the Social Justice Conference. Blackwell fielded a number of questions about his participation in the conference, but a couple questions were asked that he didn’t have answers for.
One parent asked who selected the topics for the conference, pointing to a session titled “What is an American?” and a session led by Outfront Minnesota regarding LGBT equality.

Blackwell said he did not have a role in organizing the conference, but noted that since this was the first-ever conference, there may be different sessions, with more public input in future events.

The parent also expressed concern that “because parents are not included,” they wouldn’t know what happened in the sessions. She asked what happens if her child doesn’t want to take part in a session.

Blackwell looked to school staff for answers, and the audience was told that students selected the sessions they most wanted to take part in. Organizers attempted to get students in the discussion groups they wanted to take part in. Students have the option to not take part if they find it uncomfortable. And, parents have the option of keeping their child home from school entirely.
A community member spoke up, noting that the parental concern was good to see. She said parents should want to know what’s happening in the halls and in history classes, not just on this one day, but every day.

Blackwell ended the question and answer time by stressing the importance of communication. He noted that it appears that there could have been communication with parents sooner. He said in most instances, communication is key.

More information about the workshops can be seen at  Click on Social Justice Conference.