Delores Huerta didn't have to push very hard to get a raucous response from the capacity crowd gathered in the Cherry Creek High School Fine Arts Auditorium on Feb. 3.
Huerta, the legendary labor activist and civil rights leader who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with César Chávez in the early 1960s, drew enthusiastic cries of support from the audience as soon as she approached the podium set up at the front of the stage. As she delivered a speech that encouraged political engagement and advocated everyday activism, the audience stood and cheered at regular intervals; as she spoke to the importance of diversity, acceptance and education, the crowd of high school students from across Colorado became more and more engaged.
The audience's most overwhelming reaction came toward the end of the presentation, as Huerta spoke to the underlying mission of the gathering. Huerta was the keynote speaker for the 25th Annual Cherry Creek Diversity Conference, an event designed to tackle questions of equity and equality. As in past years, the 2018 conference held on the Cherry Creek High School campus on a sunny Saturday drew attendees from high schools across the state of Colorado; thousands congregated at CCHS to discuss diversity and propose solutions to negative, divisive attitudes.
Before the group headed off to a daylong program of workshops and activities in classrooms across the campus, they came together for the conference's formal opening ceremonies in the CCHS auditorium. As keynote speaker, Huerta offered guidance and wisdom culled from a lifetime of activism. What's more, she spelled out a vital mission statement for the day's proceedings.
"We will not let people divide us," Huerta said to thunderous applause. "We will celebrate our diversity."
That uncompromising mission statement was a fitting way to kick off an event that, for a quarter century, has advocated diversity and sought to make Colorado a more inclusive place. For the past 25 years, Cherry Creek High School has been the meeting ground for high school students dedicated to the values of equality, understanding and community. The Diversity Conference has long been a place where individuals of all backgrounds come together to contribute to a greater sense of good, and this year was no exception.
Aaron Abai, a senior at Chatfield High School and one of the co-chairs on the Diversity Conference's executive committee, stressed that the 2018 gathering was meant as a way to spark action through dialogue.
"They come together to interact with the overall purpose of making the world a better place," Abai said. "We encapsulate so many different topics in the student discussion groups, from sexism to the wage gap to racism – anything can be discussed.
"The students who are here want to create a chain reaction to affect the world around them," he added.
Cherry Creek School District students, teachers and staff have long cherished the opportunity to offer Cherry Creek High School campus as the laboratory for that brand of dialogue and activism. Hosting the event at CCHS has been an opportunity to support the conference's vital mission, even as it's been a chance to welcome a broader array of perspectives and backgrounds at the school.
For example, the conference allows CCSD students to interact with teenagers from the other end of the state; it welcomes the perspectives of high school students who are dealing with a spectrum of issues unique to their corner of Colorado.
"It's important for our kids to see students from all different parts of our state," said CCHS Principal Ryan Silva. "The challenges are completely different if you're in Denver Public Schools, or if you're in a rural area or a mountain area. It's important for all students to learn from one another."
What's more, participants had a chance to tackle issues that go far beyond a single school district, a single state or even a single country. Workshop topics included addressing depression and anxiety; students discussed sexism, racism and hate crimes; they came together to talk about issues of immigration and migration; they played theater games to break down cultural walls and spoke about the value of yoga to find inner peace.
The collective effect was a combined push to overcome divisions of all types. CCSD Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull noted the forward-thinking spirit of the conference, and said its note of inclusion and peace offered a stirring model.
"You have shown us the way. Thank you for your leadership over the past 25 years," Bull told the attendees. "There is not a more important conversation that we can be having," he said, adding a message of encouragement, "Please don't stop having this conversation."
Huerta echoed that message of encouragement in a speech that touched on painful moments from her own past as a farm worker, a labor organizer and an activist. After recounting instances of prejudice, prejudgment and outright racism, Huerta struck a note of hope and determination. She urged all of the young people in attendance to vote and to take part in the civic process; she pointed to our common roots as human beings; she warned of the toll of inaction.
"People who don't want diversity are people who want to keep their power," she said. "If we don't vote, we can't make policy changes."
She wrapped up her presentation by encouraging a coordinated chant from the crowd, a chorus that spelled out priorities and values through the Spanish words for "down with" ("abajo") and "long live" ("Que viva").
The crowd chanted as one:
Abajo sexism and misogyny!
Que viva diversity!"