Courage, humility, a strong sense of identity.

Such qualities are among the building blocks for student leadership that can be nurtured by equipping emerging young adults to find their voice — and giving them a good platform to use it.

Twenty-two Memphis high school seniors got to explore and develop their own leadership abilities Thursday during a training by Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that uses history and current events to promote moral choices.

The students eventually will lead monthly peer meetings, called student leadership groups, in their own schools using curriculum from Facing History and Ourselves. The goal is to have meaningful conversations about tough topics for students, led by students.

“In Memphis, we’re unique because we’re the capital of education reform right now,” said Isabel Rodriguez, a former student ambassador who now works for Facing History and Ourselves. “Having students who are able to voice their own thoughts themselves is really important in how we continue to develop our education system.”

Brandon Webber, 17, says participating in Central High School’s student leadership group helped him to find his own voice. This year, he’ll help facilitate the group.

“I was a bit of a slacker, but a teacher saw potential in me and pushed me to join because she could see my potential,” said Webber, who took part in Thursday’s training. “I started thinking a lot more about who I am as a person and how I can advocate for things I believe in within my community.”

Sarah Stuart, a Facing History and Ourselves staff member, coaches students on how to be a better leader.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sarah Stuart coaches students on how to be a better leader.

Leading groups of peers takes a lot of courage, said Rodriguez. The training prepares students for their first meetings by helping them practice how to lead in a group setting.

Memphis schools and students are often in the national spotlight — both as the home of a high concentration of low-performing schools and two school turnaround programs operated by both Shelby County Schools and the state. Thus, it’s especially important, Rodriguez says, for Memphis students to have a safe place to voice differing opinions and learn how to foster meaningful conversation.

The training encouraged students to think about what leadership style is best for them. For instance, you don’t have to be the loudest in the room or an extrovert.

The students talked about leaders they admired throughout history such as Claudette Colvin, the first black person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Ala.

“(Colvin) was a leader in movement, but she wasn’t the loudest voice. … You don’t often hear about her,” said Michelle Becton, 17, a senior at St. Mary’s Episcopal School. “Sometimes being a leader is one day making a choice, and that gives people courage. We need all types — passionate leaders, quiet leaders  — to have a movement and change anything.”

Facing History and Ourselves launched its first student leadership group in 1997 with just a handful of students at Whitehaven High School. Today, group sizes generally range from 10 to 50 students, with Central High having by far the largest group with more than a hundred students.

For a list of Memphis schools with student groups, or to learn more, visit Facing History and Ourselves.