One of the most life-changing moments in my life occurred almost 20 years ago in a Dallas hotel, which was hosting a national newspaper association conference. I was about 22 years old, a junior at Fresno State and among a group of about 15 diverse college students from parts of the South, Midwest, East Coast and West Coast.

One night, as we recovered from exhaustion as student participants of the daylong annual conference, we gathered in one of the student's room and talked about race. We were students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and each of us had a story to tell, good or bad. We talked about what it was like to be light skinned, dark skinned, or mixed heritage. We talked about how other people perceived or treated us, how at times, we felt awkward when we didn't feel like we could "fit in," and how our families expected that we push ourselves, not at 100 percent, but at 200 percent, so that we were judged on our performance, not skin color.

We talked about being black, white, Hispanic, and Asian in the U.S., and we learned from each other's experiences. We probably stayed up all night talking, probably until 4 a.m., and I'll never forget it.

The conference may have been designed to teach us students about the media industry, but we left with something richer. It gave us a deeper understanding and appreciation of our diverse backgrounds -- never to judge one by the mere color of their skin. It also taught us that we were different, yet similar, in many ways.

I remain friends with many of those students from that extraordinary day, and I was reminded of that very moment recently when a Black History Month celebration was held at the Bakersfield Museum of Art.

A provocative conversation on the progress and challenges of African Americans, and the need to have more open talks on race relations took center stage at the Bakersfield event, which featured a screening of "The Black List, Vol. 1" and a panel discussion moderated by April Ryan, a 23-year veteran journalist and regular panelist on Washington Watch with Roland Martin for TV One.

Panelists shared personal stories that included growing up in communities, such as the Silicon Valley, where they faced racial discrimination -- even at times, enduring painful name-callings by their peers as youth. In addition, the panelists discussed the influence of their parents to seek higher education, some at historically black colleges, and as young adults, coming to grips with the "duality" experience -- of having to "fit in" into mainstream society while being able to embrace their personal self or cultural identity once at home or among close peers.

The panelists were Ralph Bailey, a talk show host on KZNR; Eric Claytor, TV One vice president of affiliate relations/western region and national accounts; Julia Dudley Najieb, CEO of national Urban TV Network syndicator, Ann Marie Pro TV, and the California Black TV Network, Bounce-NorCal TV and Danielle Wade, Bright House Networks vice president of sales and marketing.

In a discussion before a multicultural crowd, both Bailey and Wade stressed the need to have more conversations with each other on racial progress and challenges -- however satisfying or uncomfortable the topics are. Such talks can only bring more tolerance and greater understanding of each other, they continued.

The event, which was sponsored by Bright House Networks in partnership with TV One, the Bakersfield Museum of Art and Kern County Black Chamber, proved to be another learning experience for me, and as Ida Tagliente, Bright House Networks multicultural marketing manager noted, it was a reflection of how local businesses can come together and create events that can help our community grow.

Another highlight of the event was the recognition of a local "icon." Tanisha Ross, a kindergarten teacher at Casa Loma school in southeast Bakersfield, was honored for her volunteer activities and desire to help her students achieve greatness, no matter their age, economic or social background. As part of the recognition, Bright House Networks and TV One awarded Ross with a $1,000 grant to support charity efforts dear to her heart. Among the list is Casa Loma School.

LEMONADE DRIVE: Speaking of school efforts, Liberty High School Spanish teacher Felisa Patino told me of the MEChA student club's plans to hold an "Alex's Lemonade Stand" fundraiser from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at several street intersections in the Rosedale area. Locations include Calloway Drive and Brimhall Road; Brimhall Road and Jewetta Avenue; and Old Farm Road and Palm Avenue. The funds raised will benefit the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, which fights childhood cancer. The event also will be a day for student community service at Liberty, Patino said. Students raised $2,300 last year.

These are the opinions of Olivia Garcia, not necessarily The Bakersfield Californian. Email her at ogarcia@bakersfield.com

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