In 1961, as a civil rights movement swelled nationally, a group of high school students calling themselves the Asheville Student Commission on Racial Equality (ASCORE) set out on a campaign to peacefully desegregate Asheville’s lunch counters, libraries, pools and parks. Though the teens were the public face of Asheville’s own civil rights victories, they were given assistance and support by adults, parents and business owners who remained in the background.
This month, members of that 50-year-old movement sat down at UNC Asheville with current high school students and talked about issues surrounding race, social equality and non-violent change.
The conversations were part of the two-day Me2We summer conference, held June 14 and 15, the first in a planned four-year series of events focusing on civic engagement organized by a partnership of the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy, the Center for Diversity Education and UNC Asheville’s AVID Summer Bridge.
The conference consisted of workshops and talks that ranged from self respect and school success to problem solving and conflict resolution, but a highlight was the opportunity to hear the stories and legacies of the members of ASCORE. Those testimonies told the tale of a group of teens who decided to stand up and challenge inequality.
“The kids in ASCORE, these were top students who got together and said ‘We’re going to make a difference in Asheville,’” said Al Whitesides, who participated in sit-ins and non-violent demonstrations.
For William Young, the protests were a part of life as a teenager. “It was just something we thought needed to be done. It was always about human dignity,” he said.
Students were able to share their thoughts with the civil rights pioneers on contemporary challenges to equality. Meanwhile, CAYLA alumni, all of whom have moved on to college since taking part in the academy, led workshops and team-building activities for the conference’s 100 participants.
The City of Asheville’s Educational Coordinator Erika Germer said the conference gave incoming CAYLA students the chance to see the academy’s alumni in pivotal leadership roles “Peer-to-peer mentoring and role modeling were key components of the conference design,” Germer said. “Seeing that kind of leadership in action inspires teens and shows them what is possible.”
Or as ASCORE veteran Etta Whitner Patterson put it, “Someone older than you has been down roads you haven’t been down. You never stop learning. The moment you become unteachable, you have failed.”