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How the Colorado Youth Congress is empowering high school students to fight for racial justice

After-school program teaches students how to organize, fundraise, lead to fight for racial justice.

DENVER — The power of getting together, even through a Zoom, is a power Sam Battan wanted to unleash when he created Colorado Youth Congress in 2017.

"I started the Colorado Youth Congress because I thought that if we could bring together a diverse group of high school students to build a really strong, loving community and then collectively as young people to think about what they wanted to see changed in the education system," Battan said. "There's a lot of good that could come from that."

Even during the pandemic, Battan recruits 40 students from high schools around the state for an after-school leadership program students and staff refer to as "CYC."

"We build student leaders, but what they do which is so powerful is go out and build partnerships with adult-decision makers because collectively that is a powerful force," Battan said.

Sammy Kidane is a senior at Denver School of Science and Technology Byers Campus. He said that CYC has taught him how to be an organizer and how to connect with others on issues racial justice.

"Following the summer of 2020 and all the events that happened there, I wanted to make a difference and a lot of times I didn't think I was somebody who could do that," Kidane said.

Battan said he wants CYC members to take action in their communities around Colorado.

"We are not just a leadership development program. We train leaders to go lead," Battan said.

At least twice a month, the students meet to plan, share, and discuss, according to Kidane. Kidane said he likes being able to hear different perspectives and work with other students outside of his school.

"At CYC, there is such a tangible feeling of momentum, just being there, being around all those people who are passionate about the same goal," Kidane said.

Battan encourages students to deal with actual decision makers like lawmakers, school board members, or superintendents.

"Not only are they making change in their individual communities, but then collectively as a state, we start to see youth leadership rise. We start to see adults paying attention," Battan said.

But, Battan said CYC is more than just about making social change. He said it's also about mental health.

"I lost my mom when I was a teenager from a drug overdose," Battan said. "I've learned that the best way to honor her memory is to do something positive."

He created Colorado Youth Congress to also be a forum for teens to help each other with life which is something Battan said he needed after his mom's death.

"I saw that number one when you’re growing up and you experience a loss like that, a lot of times there’s not a lot of places to go," Battan said. "I saw young people who by and large were brilliant and creative yet were experiencing so much in their lives and didn’t have a place to talk about it."

Now, people are talking about Colorado Youth Congress.

9NEWS partners with Colorado Succeeds, a group created by business leaders to promote innovation in schools. Each year, they award The Succeeds Prize in six various disciplines to celebrate success.

Colorado Youth Congress is this year's winner of The Succeeds Prize for Experiential Learning.

"I was proud of the work that we had done because the Succeeds Prize was really just like an affirmation that we are doing good work," Kidane said.

Battan is proud.

"It felt like recognition of all of our hard work for many years is now being validated," Battan said. "It really is truly an honor to be able to honor my mom's memory through this work."

The Succeeds Prize comes with a $15,000 cash prize and yearlong support of sharing their story with other schools around the state. 9NEWS will feature one winner on the first Friday of each month throughout the school year.

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