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Young black women lift visions of their futures

May 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Health, News

“You are not a victim of circumstances. You create your life.”

( Neither Don Imus’ words nor a rapper’s degrading lyrics can silence Ariel Kelly’s voice.

On Sunday, it fell on Kelly’s slight, 16-year-old shoulders to open the annual EspeciallyMe conference for young African-American women by singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the black national anthem.

It was the third year she has sung to open the conference. But this year – in the wake of radio personality Imus’ calling a group of female basketball players “nappy-headed hos” and the subsequent criticism over the way some rap songs degrade women – participants said the conference took on a greater importance to send a positive message to young black women.

When it came time for Kelly to sing, she let her voice rip.

“There are lots of young people out there who want to be positive role models; they want to be doctors or teachers,” said Kelly, a high school sophomore who hopes to become a professional singer. “And when there are comments out there like those, that puts out the stereotype that young black women are ignorant and that’s all we can be.”

Sunday was the ninth year for EspeciallyMe, an event that brings together young African-American women from Denver-area schools to talk about setting high standards, believing in themselves and reaching for their dreams. Each year, the conference combines workshop sessions with community leaders, with a keynote address given by a prominent figure.

“My goal today,” said this year’s speaker, Atlanta author Natasha Munson, “is to let you know you are not a victim of circumstances. You create your life.”

About 400 women and teens participated in the conference this year, held at Denver’s South High School. And while many discussions revolved around typical things – friends, schoolwork, getting into college – the Imus controversy cast a looming shadow.

Both Munson and conference founder Patricia Houston addressed the controversy, and both asked whether Imus’ hurtful words provided an opportunity to make a cultural change for the better.

“We need to ask why somebody feels so comfortable in saying that about us,” Houston said. “Is it something we’re doing? Is it something we should change?”

At lunchtime, conference organizers circulated copies of a letter that criticized the way black women are often portrayed in popular culture.

“We are in a state of emergency,” the letter reads in part. “Instead of being recognized for our intellectual assets, we are objectified and exploited.”

Participants were invited to sign the letter, and Houston said she will send the letters to prominent entertainment figures.

Rebekah Johnson said the conference provided her with a message to carry into her life.

“It’s really important to have a strong confidence in yourself and be positive in what you do,” said Johnson, a 16-year-old junior at East High School in Denver. “You have more power over things than you think you do.”

By John Ingold

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