MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- High school students from Dane County and surrounding counties hosted a social justice forum on Monday, focused on addressing inequalities in education.
Sarah Stouffer-Lerch, a senior at DeForest Area High School, has seen firsthand the inequalities minority students can face in school.
"I take a lot of AP classes and I've always been the only African-American or the only minority in those classes," she said. "I always feel like I have to work twice as hard to prove myself, and it really puts a lot of stress on me."
That is part of the reason Stouffer-Lerch helped plan and lead Monday's social justice forum.
Students from 20 school districts learned more about how different communities face discrimination and discussed how to address the gaps in education for minority communities.
"I think empowerment is helping students that may feel disadvantaged feel advantaged and feel like they're not the only ones there," Stouffer-Lerch said.
Students talked about what kind of support and resources they want to see from their schools, from encouraging minority students to take AP classes to help with college applications.
They also brainstormed steps school officials can take to make those changes.
"I think we are the future, but we are also the ones that are going to teach the old people to care and to help us make a difference, because we can't do everything ourselves, and I think that's why it's important because the youth have the enthusiasm but right now, the older people have the power," Stouffer-Lerch said.
Educators at Monday's forum said young people need to be part of these conversations.
"I am hoping that the older generation can learn to listen to the kids, that they have life stories, they’ve had experiences that they are relevant and they are real and that they have dreams and ideas that could help us heal," said Carri Hale, a counselor at Verona Area High School.
Stouffer-Lerch said she hopes the forum empowers her peers to keep pushing for change.
"I hope they walk away with the sense that they can make a difference," she said. "Our work's not over. You have to go back to your school districts, homes and tell people about what's happening here and that everyone has power and everyone can use that power to make a change."
Staff from the different school districts will take students' suggestions and concerns to their school boards later this year.
Student organizers said seeing their peers come together was powerful, and they hope to make the forum an annual event.