National educational and civil rights leaders gathered Friday at West Virginia University at Parkersburg as part of the second annual National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students conference.

Photographer and author John Noltner was a guest speaker, talking about his travels around the country creating profiles of citizens for the art installation “A Peace of My Mind.”

Noltner said in his work he has come to realize many people don’t agree on peace, or what would bring peace to those around them. Often perceptions are colored by individual perspectives to the point of losing empathy for others.

“There is a disconnect between what we say we value and how we live our daily lives, and that’s what I wanted to explore,” he said.

Noltner said gathering stories and profiles forced him to remember how to listen to others.

Photo by Michael Erb Chris Gilmer, president of West Virginia University at Parkersburg and founder of the National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students, presents the first Generations Award to Constance Slaughter-Harvey and her grandson James Burwell, III. Slaughter-Harvey is the founder and president of the Legacy Foundation in Forest, Miss., and a well-respected civil rights attorney.

“That’s a skill we learn as a small child and spend the rest of our lives forgetting,” he said. Noltner said while there is no magic formula to peace, the process of finding peace is in “inviting people into the conversation.”

“I think wisdom and beauty are all around us if we take the time to listen,” he said.

Noltner said the pursuit of understanding and empathy is difficult, but necessary.

“For me, each of these stories is a point of light,” he said, referencing the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who said only love can conquer hate and light conquer darkness.

“We’re the light, and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Noltner said.

Photo by Michael Erb Shirlethia Franklin, an attorney and former counselor to the U.S. Attorney General and White House liaison to the Department of Justice during the Barack Obama administration, speaks Friday during a community forum at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. Franklin was one of several delegates from throughout the nation to attend the second annual National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students conference.

Delegates also held a town hall meeting, allowing those in the audience to ask questions and speaking on topics of hope, civility and civil rights.

Arnold Salazar, past chair of the Board of Trustees at Adam State University in Vicksburg, was one of the delegates, and said the conference is a chance to bring attention to the struggles some students face in pursuing an education and a better life.

Attendees have “a passion for underserved students, because both of us and most of the people here come from that background. Trying to coordinate this nationwide is our big dream. There are so many students that have gone through the experiences we’ve gone through. We come from high schools that are underfunded. Smart, smart kids, but (the system) needs more work.”

He and his wife Marguerite Salazar hosted the first conference last year at their ranch in Colorado, and felt it was important for them to attend this year’s event in Parkersburg.

“Coming all the way here to Parkersburg, I think it symbolizes what a lot of students go through: It’s not easy to get here,” said Marguerite Salazar. “It makes us understand the trials and tribulations kids sometimes have to go through to get to school.”

During Friday’s session, the National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students presented its inaugural Generations Awards to civil rights icons Constance Slaughter-Harvey and Dr. Lionel Bordeaux.

Slaughter-Harvey, Founder and President of the Legacy Foundation in Forest, Miss., became one of America’s most respected civil rights attorneys, filing landmark cases to advance equal rights after being the first African-American woman to integrate the University of Mississippi School of Law. Later, she became the first African-American to serve as a judge in Mississippi.

Bordeaux is one of the longest-serving college presidents in the United States at Senta Gleska University in Mission, S.D. Born on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, he was recently inducted into the inaugural class of the National Native American Hall of Fame.

Slaughter-Harvey and her grandson James Burwell, III, accepted the award on behalf of their family Friday, and WVU-P President Chris Gilmer accepted the other award on behalf of the Bordeaux family.

Gilmer said the Generations Awards will be presented annually to multiple generations of the same family who are advancing social justice in the world.