Get Connected Conference: Three decades of diverse college readiness in Spokane

By April Eberhardt The Black Lens

Jada Richardson, a 2021 graduate of Innovation High School, a charter school in Spokane, recalls the first time she attended a Get Connected Conference as a freshman. She had heard about it as a student member of Spokane Public School’s Diversity Advisory Council. She immediately saw the value of connecting diverse students and diverse professionals, and took the information back to her high school and rallied to have her school attend.

“I am very blessed to have been around Black people who lead,” Richardson said. “Being able to watch the impact these adults have on other people other kids who looked like me, that was super cool.”

The mission of Get Connected continues nearly three decades later. Bernice Buchanan, a 44-year veteran of Spokane Public Schools is one of several community members who developed the Get Connected Conference in the late 1990s. She and others saw a gap that needed to be filled for students of color to see professionals and community members from diverse backgrounds in Spokane. As a native of Mississippi that arrived in Spokane in 1975, Buchanan saw an opportunity to foster inclusivity and stimulate positive identity development in students and create a better sense of belonging. Buchanan says that the aim was to “build capacity in our children and our families to show that they could go far in education.”

The first Get Connected was held at Spokane Falls Community College. Buchanan asserts that when students see themselves reflected in different capacities, their entire demeanor changes. Limited exposure in the Pacific Northwest can create a sense of cultural isolation for some, she explains. Many students have not been out of their immediate surroundings, so, “we needed to bring the world to them.”

As a first generation Spokanite, Richardson recalls never having a Black teacher in her K-12 education. She shares that she learned her potential through family and community connections, and credits them for helping to shape her awareness about the world.

“When you look at me,” Richardson emphasized, “just know that Black women did it. I have always seen Black women in professions killing the game.”

Get Connected is a protected space, says Richardson. Having spent time at an HBCU, when she sees local students celebrating Black culture in ways that parallel what she also witnessed in the South, it affirmed the universality of Blackness. She describes it as liberating.

“No matter where we are in the world,” Richardson said, “it takes Black to identify Black, and watching it all operating in one space is like watching a piece of the Black collective. There is power in culture. At the end of the day, we’re all just looking for a place to belong.”

Reflecting on what it is like growing up in predominantly white spaces, Richardson said that representation is so important because it serves as a reminder of potential.

“Recognizing that not everyone is exposed to that, it is important to see people in those spaces you want to occupy, because sometimes you need to see someone like you to give you permission to step into those doors, to walk into those spaces,” Richardson said. “Representation gives boldness and bravery to students to say, yeah, I am going to do that too. We’re going to go our whole lives being Black in America … and sometimes being the only one in the room.”

Imposter syndrome is a common reality faced by many who have not had the privilege of seeing themselves in abundance, in every facet of society and do not feel they belong. This occurs when there are too few Black educators as well, as Richardson points out “there is a heavy weight on being everything to every student of color, due to scarcity.” The pressure on these few educators to fill this need while also learning how to navigate professional spaces oneself can be daunting.

The best part about Get Connected is seeing, in one place, the abundance of Black and Brown professionals who can advise the younger generation on their way up, according to Richardson. Buchanan emphasized that is just as important to sustain the capacity of Get Connected today, as it was to build the capacity over the last 30 years.

And then there is the cherished talent show portion of Get Connected.

“Giving students the freedom to perform during the talent show, getting to see them vibe, is just joyful,” Richardson said. “There is nothing like seeing Black kids just joyful … there are so many things impacting our kids. Giving them just one day to be kids, is important, I am a huge believer in not ‘adultifying’ Black kids.”

Richardson is now a Student Support Specialist for Spokane Public Schools and on the planning committee for Get Connected.

“Supporting Get Connected and programs like it is one way that we can crush the scarcity mindset,” Richardson said.

Richardson said having local leaders and professionals pour into current students, with the perspective of having grown up here, is also valuable.

This year’s Get Connected Conference is happening on March 14 at Gonzaga University.