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Eyes on the Pies: Peace Literacy in Practice

May 2, 2018

Hamz, Juan and Joe

In this photo, student leaders Hamz Jamari and Juan Sarenpa are gifting a pie to Joe Ramlet, winner of a literary contest sponsored by Sweet Potato Comfort Pie’s 4th Annual MLK Holiday of Service.  

In a time where our youth and people of color are marching in the streets to protest police brutality and gun violence—and where young white men are marching as white nationalists—we offer our young people few spaces where they can learn to model inclusion and skillfully navigate all the differences (cultural, political, gender-based and levels of ability) they experience in life.  As our technology accelerates at a rate beyond that of our cultural and social change, we’re being demanded to also accelerate both math literacy and literacy in general.  Yet, we’re missing the very skills our survival depends upon:  how to foster peace within ourselves and in community.  Peace educator Paul K. Chappell calls this peace literacy.

Chappell, a West Point graduate, former Army captain and Iraq war veteran, created the idea of peace literacy to help students and adults from various backgrounds develop a practical skill-set for peace in the 21st Century.  Having grown up in a violent household in Alabama, the son of a Korean mother and a father of white and African American descent who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, Chappell has dedicated his life to finding solutions to the problems of war, rage and trauma.

Chappell says, “If you had a basketball game, and nobody was taught how to play basketball, it would be a mess.  People would understand why it’s a mess, because people weren’t taught how to play basketball.  And if you had an orchestra play Beethoven, and nobody was taught how to play their instruments, it would be a mess, and everybody would understand why.  Nobody would be shocked. We have a society and a world where people are not taught basic peace skills.  Is it any surprise that the world is messier or more violent than it has to be when we aren’t taught these basic peace skills?”

Even if we send our children to diverse classrooms, that doesn’t mean their educators have the tools to welcome the cultural gifts each child brings.  Paul and our national team of peace educators understand that any skill development, in community or in class, will be compromised if it’s not grounded in framework of shared humanity. Peace literacy is a skill set, like any other, that requires training and understanding of the language of peace and the art of being human.  If we use the analogy of learning a language, to learn about peace, we must learn about cultural philosophies behind the language and vocabulary of nonviolence, along with ways to create spaces where we can, at once, witness, experience and nurture our shared humanity.

One practice of peace literacy is a community model called Sweet Potato Comfort Pie™, developed by pie philanthropist Rose McGee, which uses the sacred dessert of Black people as a catalyst for caring and connection.  Honoring sweet potato pie’s legacy as a sacred gift shared between enslaved people and their descendants, the model joins volunteers to bake pies, then convenes people to share their own stories of joy and pain in community as they decide together who to gift with a comfort pie.  The Comfort Pie team hosts an annual MLK event in the Minnesota city of Golden Valley, a celebration that includes music, reflections and table dialogue about ways to bring Dr. King’s legacy alive in our community.  Each table is given at least two pies, with the challenge to gift the pies to people in their community who deserve recognition and/or comfort.  At this year’s event, the City sponsored its first literary contest inviting students to write how to make lives matter in the spirit of MLK’s dream.

The contest was won by Joe Ramlet, a 10th grader from Hopkins High School, who read his essay to over 130 guests that day.  “We are all human,” Joe read, “but we are not all humane.  If we were to participate in positive, constructive discourse, we would achieve the first step of understanding each other.  We will see that, fundamentally, we are all humans made of the same things, and that we are different because of our experiences.  Sharing our experiences will create the foothold for the understanding that will spark progress.”

As Joe read, two other young men were listening closely.  One was Hamz Jamari, a senior at Como High School in St. Paul, and Juan Sarenpa, a sophomore at Venture Academy, a Minneapolis charter school.  Hamz and Juan are both leaders in YES!, the Youth Equity Solutions team, a youth development effort from Saint Mary University’s Missing Voices Project.  When it came time to talk about lives that matter in the community who deserve to be recognized with a pie, Hamz and Juan decided unanimously that they would like to gift one of the two pies at their table to Joe Ramlet—inspired by Joe’s call to not just be human, but to be humane.  The boys made their case, and the table agreed that the pies should go to Joe.  When Hamz and Juan carried their pie to Joe, he was deeply touched.

There’s a lot of talk now about our young men being broken—our white boys feeling isolated, entitled and increasingly violent;  our young Black men forced to give up their innocence at a very early age because of cultural oppression and bias.  Yet, as I watched Hamz, of Ethiopian descent, and Juan, Hispanic and Native American, offer their pie to Joe, of European heritage, I witnessed three young men grounded in their shared humanity.  Each one of them radiated joy and gratitude as they found their human connection through Sweet Potato Comfort Pie.  It was an unforgettable moment, not only for them, but for me.

But it didn’t just happen.  Juan and Hamz have worked together through YES! to plan and facilitate summits and activities to model for other youth how to create learning practices through an equity lens.   They invited Paul K. Chappell to speak to educators and other youth about peace literacy—and the language of shared humanity.   They continued to apply what they learned from Paul in their efforts with other youth.  When they heard Joe speaking their language, they knew immediately that he had earned his own pie.

In a time when there remains much to divide us—and much is a mess because we’re not teaching literacy in the art of being human—we need to stop and take note of moments that do capture our inextricable human connection.   When young leaders are given rightful access to learning peace skills (and opportunities to practice the language with models like Sweet Potato Comfort Pie™ and Missing Voices at Saint Mary’s University), they can make a simple pie delivery hold all the wonder of a seamlessly-performed Beethoven symphony.




Break It Down, Build It Up

May 1, 2017



Youth Action Retreat4_2017


YES! (Youth Equity Solutions) Team members Faith Agboola, Katie Wojda, Nate Holupchinski, Asha Bellamy, Ktyal Price, Juan Sarenpa, Hamz Jamari and Babette Buckner (the Youth Action Retreat clean-up crew) strike a pose.


s.t.a.r.t. (students together as allies for racial trust) is a model that centers youth voice in the process of teacher, student and community development.   That approach is at the heart of Saint Mary University’s YES! Team, a group of 12 students from metro-area schools (public, private and charter) who work across schools to develop projects and venues through which youth leaders play their own role to inform teachers-in-training and educators about their needs in life and in the classroom.  YES! stands for “Youth Equity Solutions.”  The YES! Team planned and orchestrated every aspect of a Youth Action Retreat held at Saint Mary’s University on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, an initiative that sprang from the 2016 Missing Voices Conference.  Youth leaders Faith Agboola and Bryce Maples emceed the whole Action Retreat.

YES! members met bi-monthly to plan every aspect of the Youth Action Retreat:  the Retreat’s theme, Break It Down, Build It Up; activities with dance artists for stretching, reflection and body movement; student-led workshops; and a ground-breaking opportunity to inspire youth to create their own navigation manual, or GREEN-BOOK for Student Equity.  They also invited pastor, educator and mental health practitioner, Roslyn Harmon, to write a real-time spoken word poem that captured the day’s lessons and themes.  The youth organizers and presenters wore t-shirts they designed for the event featuring a bridge as a symbol of new ideas and social connections the youth hope to make because of the Action Retreat.

The Break It Down, Build It Up Youth Action Retreat also featured the Communi-Tree art installation the first YES! cohort designed for the November 2016 Missing Voices Conference so that students could answer what they would like to grow for youth in our community—along with feedback on the day and suggestions for future retreats.  YES! leader and photographer Ktyal Price took photographs of the many activities throughout the day.

Nearly five dozen youth with their chaperones attended the Retreat from area schools.  After introductions, dance artists and yoga instructors, Bri Salhus and Kirsten DeHaven, led the youth in a series of reflections and movements to center their bodies.  They started the youth out with a meditation in which each student envisioned qualities like strength, compassion and courage as seedlings that are growing within them.  They followed with light yoga activities and a mirroring exercise to music (including music by Prince, the Artist), where each partner had the opportunity to lead a series of movements the other had to imitate.  The highlight of the music session was a series of movements combining hip hop dance and boxing to Ed Sheeran’s song Shape of You, inspired by a recent St. Paul Ballet performance of To Billy that joined the disciplines of boxing and ballet.

Youth were then invited to attend three of four workshops:

  • An Our-dentity workshop, led by YES! leaders Asha Bellamy, Diana Vongphakdy and Juan Sarenpa, allowed youth to explore their individual identity and how they see themselves in the context of community. Through visual art and spoken word, youth interpreted together how individuals relate to one another with a community identity.
  • In Crossing the Bridge to Safety and Recovery, youth participated in inter-active role-playing in the spirit of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed to understand more deeply the dynamics of crisis situations and de-escalation. Youth arrived to the room with YES! leaders Faith Agboola, Hamz Jamari and Dustun Coleman in an improvised crisis, pretending to be angry with one another for not setting up the workshop chairs correctly. After Dustun acted out an attempt to de-escalate the conflict, participants talked about options and de-escalation skills for responding to crisis.  Youth then explored different types of crises they experience, acting out a few scenarios to critique one another’s skills.  As one example, youth learned that when a teacher and fellow student are in conflict, youth might be able to calm their peer in crisis if they have a trusting relationship.
  • YES! leaders Grace Sommers, Babette Buckner, India Young-Fraser and Katie Wojda led the workshop Constructing Connections to Compelling Classrooms. Each educator who attended the Retreat as a chaperone was asked to attend this session.  This workshop also invited participants to be spect-actors who helped explore effective approaches for students to take when they want to offer constructive feedback to their teachers.  The workshop invited participants to imagine themselves in real-life classroom scenarios where they had to figure out how to play their own role in creating an affirming and engaging classroom culture.
  • In the signature workshop Breaking Walls, Building Bridges, YES! leaders Bryce Maples, Amira McClendon and Nate Holupchinski guided participants through an exercise where they literally had to break down a wall of bricks constructed from boxes, and then re-assemble the cardboard bricks to transform the wall into a bridge. As they internalized the feelings of breaking down the wall to reconstruct a bridge of unity, participants talked together about ways they can act as bridge-builders in their schools and communities.

Following a full taco bar lunch, Asha Bellamy guided the group in a history lesson about the GREEN-BOOK Negro Motorist Guide, a travel guide published by Victor H. Green from 1936 to 1966 to record establishments (hair salons, barber shops, service stations, pharmacies, restaurants and hotels) that invited African American patrons during the Jim Crow era.  One theme of the publication, Asha explained, is that “Travel is Fatal to Prejudice.” She explained that as an action step from the Retreat, the youth participants are invited to create their own GREEN-BOOK of Student Equity, to include equity terms, movies, books and organizations that allow youth refuge and affinity with other youth travelers on the journey to educational equity.  Included in the GREEN-BOOK of Student Equity publication will be I Am From poems, inspired by a new project by educators and authors George Ella Lyon and Julie Landsman based on Ms. Lyon’s original I Am From poem that has sparked many other poems, stories, songs, vignettes and spoken word performances.

Equity terms like accessible and systemic oppression were submitted, while movies and books included The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Hidden Figures and The Wiz.  Youth mentioned local Cities organizations like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and Black Light, an affinity group for students of African descent at Apple Valley High School, as groups that supported and empowered them.

Katie Wojda, a senior at DeLaSalle High School, shared this poem:

I AM FROM by Katie Wojda

I am from: the long journey of my father’s polish grandparents, their pickle farm in New York, the blazing sun of my mother’s home in Texas, and the freezing Minnesota winters

I am from: the books my parents read me, stories that taught charity, honor, and love

I am from: the coolness of a pew in a basement church, the tambourine of a band I used to enjoy, the side of a room filled with the kids of my parents’ friends, the security of an unconditional love

I am from: long nights in costumes, stage lights and scripts. Tired feet, worn out smiles, and red lips

I am from: the Lasallian tradition, the love of a community where I am cherished, the brick walls of a place I can call my home because my days at that high school could be 14 hours long

I am from: crying in bathrooms, laughing at books, and thousands of cups of tea

I am from: compromises in a big family, but also the heartbreak of watching each sibling go, my sister’s advice over long emotional phone calls, trying to be that for my little sister but knowing there is no way I could be

I am from: a happy childhood, but one spent in a white home, a white grade school, a white church. It was a white lie, and now I feel exposed and uncertain, always careful of what I say, afraid to face my privilege, afraid to be ignorant, afraid to make a change, afraid to stand aside, afraid to speak when I feel I have no right, afraid to ask questions when I think I might offend, afraid to feel afraid when I know I have so much less to be afraid of.

The following I Am From submission was shared by Diana V., a junior at Southwest High School:

I AM FROM by Diana V.

I am from the words, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

Where kids become your friends and gradually become your enemies.

In the community that’s unsafe at a certain time.

Because of the amount of crime.

I am from a first generation household trying to make life better for me and my brothers.

Living the good life, cheering under the night sky.

Remembering the nostalgia and watching friends get high.

I am from a community that’s taboo to the world.

Falling in love with the wrong one.

Looking very wrong but feeling very right.

I am from what society has made me to be.

An Asian American.

A Transgender Woman.

An Unrich Youth.

And a person.

As the grand finale of the Youth Action Retreat, Pastor Roz Harmon, performed her spoken word piece, a synthesis of the words and phrases spoken by youth throughout the day.

Her piece, called The Call to Youth Equity Solutions began:

Missing Voices:  Break it down, build it up!

When conflict arises, LISTEN to how people feel.

Split up and Grow up!

Talk it out, dive in, and relax a bit…


Express what you are feeling, ‘cuz crisis affects your perceptions.

What the heck is going on?  What will we do about it?

And ended:

Missing Voices: Your identity shapes, molds, melts, performs.

It’s. Constantly. Changing.

If we as youth commit to breaking down all barriers

To BUILD UP Youth Equity Solutions,

Then I’ll leave you with this:

As the young and beautiful JJ so eloquently wrote:

Identity goes DEEP.

If identity is made of two, then where would she place you?

In quadrant one or two,

Would that be unfair because you identify with just you?

Missing Voices:  Break it down, BUILD IT UP!

The GROWTH is up to you!

For more information on Saint Mary’s Missing Voices Project, visit: voices. To learn about the Graduate Certificate in Culturally-Responsive Teaching, visit:

Missing Voices: Equity in Education’s YES! (Youth Equity Solutions) Team

December 6, 2016


The YES! (Youth Equity Solutions Team) of Asha Bellamy, Amira McClendon, Grace Sommers, Ian Marquez, Juan Sarenpa, Hamz Jamari, Katie Wojda and Art/Social Justice Coach Nate Holupchinski with conference presenters Benjie Howard and Wade Colwell-Sandoval of the New Wilderness Project and Paul K. Chappell, Peace Education Director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.


The s.t.a.r.t. (students together as allies for racial trust) approach, cultivated with young leaders from around Minnesota, is centered on the premise that youth are some of our best educators when it comes to creating a better world. Since youth are the experts of what they experience both in the classroom and in the community, they are able to internalize a love of lifelong discovery and leadership when they are given opportunities to teach as they are learning. As they work alongside adults in the education process, they also learn more deeply about the steady, patient work it takes to apply constructive solutions to our complex systems.

The 4th Annual 2016 Missing Voices Conference, sponsored by the University of St. Mary’s in Minneapolis on November 3rd, engaged youth in every aspect of planning and leadership.  The YES! (Youth Equity Solutions) Team of eight students from metro-area schools (public, private and charter) met bi-monthly to:  create their own identity and name;  identify youth leadership roles and assignments;  influence the conference schedule;  design their own t-shirt; plan their own inter-active theatre activity involving the community as spect-actorsand design an inter-active art installation–a Communi-Tree–so that conference attendees could share their hopes and dreams for education.  YES! leaders Ian Marquez and Grace Sommers emceed the whole event.

Each youth leader received a letter of recognition by Rebecca Hopkins, St. Mary’s Dean for the Graduate School of Education and Culturally-Responsive Teaching Program.

Over 300 youth, family members, educators and community leaders attended the Conference, with the theme of transformative change through creating “A Sanctuary for Centering Self, Relationships and Communities.”  The conference is designed to inclusively engage stakeholder groups in constructive dialogue and sustainable action towards educational equity.  Breakout sessions included: peace literacy; de-escalation training; strong mental health practices; art-based education; youth and family engagement; and ethnic studies as a best practice for healing.

Author and peace educator Paul K. Chappell began the day with a keynote that centered on what Chappell called “this controversial thing called hope.”  He spoke of how it took a supportive educator, who took an interest in his writing, to give his life purpose and meaning beyond the violence he experienced at home and through his deployment to Iraq.  Chappell believes that our youth and systems are “pre-literate” when it comes to peace.  By bringing the languages and practices of peace literacy into the classroom more often, students can actively gain insight into what it means to be human and how to speak and act in ways that foster shared humanity.  Chappell reminded the audience that many civil liberties we enjoy now, including voting rights, were unthinkable centuries ago, and that the path to compassionate and sustainable action is always hard-won.  He encouraged us to think broadly and creatively about how we would like to look back on our own legacy.

After lunch, YES! leaders Asha Bellamy, Katie Wojda, Juan Sarenpa and Hamz Jamari led an inter-active theatre piece designed to have the audience explore what happens when a social justice topic like Black Lives Matter is introduced in the classroom.  The piece began with one of the students expressing disappointment that protests are disrupting his community.  In the spirit of the Theatre of the Oppressed, audience members were invited to play the role of teacher to experiment with ways that educators, including students, can act effectively to create a classroom climate of respect and inclusion.

The afternoon keynote was given by Gary Howard, author of We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know–a book that makes the case that culturally-responsive teaching weaves cultural humility and awareness into every aspect of learning so that students are poised for leadership in communities and workplaces with growing diversity.  Howard invited attendees to examine how bringing discussion of racial and social justice into the classroom can help youth understand their role in transforming schools and communities to better serve them.  Howard works alongside his son Benjie Howard and fellow artist-educator Wade Colwell-Sandoval, who use a rich synthesis of folk music and hip hop to inspire deeper reflection about our nation’s cultural history, and to encourage youth expression.  They performed music incubated through their artist-in-residency movement, The New Wilderness Project, and featured in their album Borderless, Village Sound Studio, 2015.

All youth attendees were invited to contribute to a community identity poem, beginning with “In my one beat…”;  twelve teens shared their own narratives.   “In my one beat, integrity and honor keeps us from bondage,”  began a young African American man.   The next, an African American young woman, shared: “In my one beat, I am terrified of my family and my loved ones getting brutalized every day.  In my one beat, I am constantly signaled out.  In my one beat,  I feel like my voice scares other.  In my one beat, I wear what I want.  In my one beat, I notice oppression and injustice.  In my one beat, I feel like I’ve found my purpose.”   Towards the end, a young woman wearing a hijab expressed her own struggle: “In my 0ne beat, I want to be alive, not living a lie, not being a lie.  Underneath the skin I want to be, the life I want isn’t going to happen, yet I still dream.  Every time I kick the soccer ball, I find the light to my darkness. Or when I smell the air of peace, but turn away when I see destruction–the destruction of racism, of calling me ISIS when I’m not even relatable to it.”

The young poets participated with the other 140 conference youth in a series of activities and dialogues to promote creative self-expression.  Included in that was the opportunity to write on a golden paper coin their hopes and dreams for education to toss beneath the Communi-Tree (a papier-mâché tree with a child’s face).  Such wishes included, “When it’s really working, it’s our learners who are our teachers.”  Artist-in-residence Nate Holupchinski guided the YES! Team with ideas, design and construction of the Communi-Tree.  Nate, a 2016 graduate from the University of St. Thomas, designed his own double major in social justice and art.

Juan Sarenpa from YES!, a high school freshman, reminded us that you are “20 percent of the population, but 100 percent of the future.”

As the Youth Liaison for Missing Voices, it was an honor for me to recruit youth from across the city and many educational environments.  The University of St. Mary is unique as a higher ed institution that engages youth to inform its teachers-in-training of their lives–at home, in community and at school.  As high school and college-age youth plan and practice the art of teaching–and as they gain exposure to the demands and joys of building knowledge and skills within a community–they begin to see themselves as our educators for the future.

For more information on St. Mary’s Missing Voices, visit: voices. To learn about the Graduate Certificate in Culturally-Responsive Teaching, visit:










Giving Up Me to Learn with You: The Need for Cultural Gifts in the Classroom

January 21, 2016

Over time the s.t.a.r.t. network has become a group of students (and young adults) from middle school through graduate school who advise Project s.t.a.r.t. Leadership with community education and consulting around equity and inclusion literacy.  This year, I worked with youth from the Kitty Anderson Youth Science Center and South High for our workshop entitled “Giving Up Me to Learn with You: The Need for Cultural Gifts in the Classroom.”   Youth facilitators successfully delivered the workshop at three conferences:  the 4th Annual Twin Cities Social Justice Fair on October 16, 2015; the MN NAME (National Association of Multicultural Education Conference) on October 24, 2015; and the annual Overcoming Racism Conference on November 14th.

Cleveland Miller, Soline Van De Moortele, Saffiyah Alaziz and Keleenah Yang began their workshops by having each participant draw a symbol of their identity on a blank puzzle piece.   As workshop participants shared symbols, of trees, hearts and marriage equality to describe their personal experiences, they were reminded that each of us holds a “piece to the puzzle” that is the classroom community.  When someone’s identity is missing from the puzzle, it’s not complete.  The students explained that when books or school curricula group cultures together and neglect to include contributions from the cultures of students in the classroom, the students internalize that their history is not important. The presenters spoke to how cultural studies should be included in classrooms to teach students that they don’t have to give themselves up to learn in an integrated setting.  Students are often taught assimilation, or to lose their identity in the classroom, rather than authentic integration, where they are honored for the cultural assets they contribute to the collective.  They also expressed concern that standardized tests don’t reflect a student’s true knowledge, but risk teaching memorization more than critical thinking.

Saffiyah introduced the video “What I Wasn’t Taught in School,” in which young spoken word artist Samuel King from London wows his classroom peers by rattling off the names of Black British leaders students don’t learn about, even during Black history month, including British Afro-Caribbean journalist Sir Trevor McDonald or Mary Prince who published the first narrative of an enslaved Black woman living in London.  As he takes over the role of educator, he rebukes his instructor for neglecting to educate him and his peers about Black leaders and for failing to excite them about learning. “There’s a lot you haven’t told us,” he argues, “and you shut down and hold back on the bold ones who stand against the way you’re trying to mould us.”  (To watch the video, visit:

Soline explained how even as Black history is poorly represented in most classrooms, so is the truth about the presence of “Whiteness in the Classroom.”  She described how our racial identity impacts every aspect of our lives, whether we come from a place of privilege or oppression; and that we need to differentiate experiences by each individual’s lens and lived experienced, rather than through generalizations.  Soline pointed out how the lack of access to dialogue or literacy about our cultural identities diminishes the experiences of white students in the classroom, who internalize their privilege rather than a sense of shared humanity.

Keleenah Yang, of Hmong descent, spoke to how she has never had the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about her own culture in the classroom. She read a passage from the book “The Late Homecomer” by Kao Kalia Yang.  Keleenah read aloud from the book about the historical trama that led the author’s family to become Hmong American: “We could not remain just Hmong any longer. For our children, we could not fail. We had to try, no matter what. Even if it meant moving. Thousands of Hmong families moved from the farming lands of California to the job possibilities in Minnesota companies and factories. Aunt and Uncle Chue, despite their lack of English, studied for the citizenship exam, took it, failed, despaired, studied some more, and tried again. Eventually they succeeded, and they inspired my parents to try for citizenship, too. We had no more lands to return to.”

Cleveland spoke briefly to movements, including Opt Out, that not only advocate for more culturally-competent curriculum, but also for more competent assessments that can take into account “dialectically-diverse” language skills (including code-switching, or choosing language appropriate to cultural context) that students bring to the classroom from the urban core. He spoke to the need for assessments to help a student maximize their life skills (like creativity, curiosity and resilience), not just to reliably mirror their family income.  The students together encouraged workshop participants to value curriculum that honors students’ cultural identities and creates a classroom culture of inclusion.

At the end of the workshops, the presenters encouraged the educators to work in small groups to discuss ways that they might use spoken word, writing, drawing or narratives to “create their own curriculum” that can better honor the cultural assets of students.  Many of the educators thought that the workshop was an important reminder for teachers to actively learn from their students as educators in their own right—and to practice reciprocal learning in the classroom. They also really liked the puzzle activity and brainstormed ways, using painting and drawing, to form larger “identity puzzles” that might include stories and spoken word.   The youth received high marks on their evaluations for getting teachers and community members to engage youth as co-educators in the process of creating more culturally-relevant learning environments at school and beyond.

Putting Equity to the Test: Students as Educators

June 18, 2015

Classroom Paul Beverage

The s.t.a.r.t. network has grown beyond the schools to include both s.t.a.r.t. alumni (who incubated the work at South High) and learners of all ages in the community who wish to build their skills as racial allies, activists—and most importantly, educators.  In their process of educating peer students, community members and teachers in the community about their experiences as learners, students in s.t.a.r.t. are imprinting their studies more deeply, while developing their capacity for civic and intercultural leadership.  Most have received significant scholarships in college for their leadership in the community.

S.t.a.r.t.’s efforts this year have centered on student workshops and community events that examine the theme of “putting equity to the test.”  By equity, the students mean practices and policies through which outcomes cannot be determined by race or income and all students are served according to their needs.  Testing equity, then, means that evaluations are prepared and administered in such a way that there will not be a strong correlation between race or zip code and one’s advantage with test taking.

High school and college student leaders examined test bias through presentations at the Social Justice Fair (October, 2014) by Saida Mahamud, Mekhi Taylor and Loren Towle; and at the Overcoming Racism Conference (November, 2014) by Eva Shellabarger, Loren Towle, Nagma Garane and Saida Mahamud.  Workshop participants not only shared their own struggles with testing, but commented on evaluations how they were inspired by the experience and stories of the students.  Comments also included:  “I would love to know how the students are getting their work out there!” and “We need more students like you!” and “Keep doing what you’re doing!”

In February, 2015, South High senior Nagma Garane co-presented a workshop entitled “We Are Not JUST Students and Parents” at St. Mary University’s 2nd Annual Missing Voices Conference.  The workshop included a circle dialogue about the positive role that students and parents can play to foster a healthier climate in our schools.

In April 2015, Nora Lahm, Addie Welch, Loren Towle and Nagma Garane, presented their  workshop, Putting Equity to the Test, for teachers-in-training on the Metropolitan State University course Assessment of Learning in Urban Grades K-6.  (Nora, Addie, Loren and Nagma are featured in the above photograph with their students.) As a result, one student wrote, “Having the high school students come in to talk about the opt out program is what really stuck out for me over the past few weeks. Before this class, I never really thought about the amount of testing students are subjected to in schools these days and whether those tests are really necessary. The high school students brought up some great points about the biases that can exist in standardized tests, and how they are not always fair to all students. I have never heard of students being able to opt out of standardized testing, and I think the idea could be very powerful. This is not to say that I believe there shouldn’t be any standardized testing, but I do think the amount of testing has become too much, and students are becoming discouraged. I liked the point that someone in our class made about thinking about the intention behind the tests and having that be the point that we are looking to change. If the intention behind the test was to help teachers become better informed about student needs so they could help them be more successful I think we would all agree that would make a much more valuable assessment.”

Another wrote:  “The next topic I wanted to comment on was the Opt-Out presentation. I feel that this is a really great movement. I think that there are many things that influence students doing poorly on high-stakes tests such as; culture, content taught in the classroom versus content on exams, the language of the test, test anxiety, students new to the county, the emphasis the school puts on testing and for students to do well, teaching to test and not teaching students in a multi-modal way or a way that fits their needs, and the list goes on and on. I believe this movement is a great way to get states to start thinking about different more valuable ways to hold schools accountable as well as ensuring that students are learning and making progress. After this presentation I has at work in the staff lounge and decided to talk about the ability for student to opt-out, the principal said that students can opt-out but he personal wouldn’t advise it. I said what about ELL students, his reply was that students who are new to this county automatically are exempt from state testing for the first year. I could tell that he was busy and didn’t really want to have this conversation at that moment so I didn’t press him any further. But I was think how can we expect ELL students to take state tests only one year after they have started to learn English. I always feel like when I try to talk about what we are learning in our urban education program to other staff members that there is a wall up, that they do not get it, or that they do not want change, which is really frustrating at times. Even though they are all about multiculturalism, they really so not get it. All the more reason for students to opt-out.”

More recently, Cleveland Miller, a leader in our network, performed his spoken word piece at a HIP OPT OUT Concert at Bedlam Lowertown in St. Paul, and at a Spoken Word dinner hosted by South s.t.a.r.t.  Cleveland was also a panelist at a “Community Panel Discussion on Standardized Testing” hosted by the Northeast Middle School Debate Team.

Through our work, students of all ages are learning that they, too, can be educators in our community.  As such, they can influence the growing narrative about equity in our schools and beyond.

I’m More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test

October 23, 2014
Saida Mahamud, Mekhi Taylor and Loren Towle present their workshop "I'm More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test."

Saida Mahamud, Mekhi Taylor and Loren Towle present their workshop “I’m More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test.”

On Friday, October 17th, Loren Towle, Mekhi Taylor and Saida Mahamud, as leaders from the s.t.a.r.t. network, presented their workshop “I’m More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test” at the 3rd Annual Twin Cities Social Justice Fair. Nagma Garane and Sara Osman were contributors to the project but unable to attend the Fair. Loren, Mekhi and Nagma are all seniors at South High School in Minneapolis. Sara Osman is a sophomore at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and Saida a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. Sara and Saida were former Co-Chairs of s.t.a.r.t. at South High School.

After introducing themselves, the leaders told the 25 workshop participants that they would be taking a “Community Test.” (The test was created by the workshop planners to exaggerate bias and show how it often appears in standardized tests. A few of the questions were taken from actual tests.) Saida told the participants that the test was easy, and they could expect to do well on it. If they didn’t, however, they would be expected to take it again.

Test questions purposely highlighted the different forms of bias. For example, to illustrate socio-economic and class bias, one actual test question asked students to choose which item was not a fruit based on whether or not it had seeds.

See if you can identify other biases in a few of the questions that the students included on their test:

1) Who were Mary Louise Smith, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Aurelia Browder?
a. They were the first African American students to graduate from Little Rock High School in Arkansas.
b. They were the four girls who were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama was bombed.
c. They were all women who marched from Selma to Montgomery.
d. They were all women who refused to give up their seat on a bus before Rosa Parks.

2) When considering what it means to be Muslim or Arab, the following statements are true :
a. 20% of the entire world’s Muslim population is Arab or North African.
b. 61.9% of all Muslims do not live in the Middle East.
c. 10 percent of the world’s Arab population is Christian.
d. All of the above are true.

3) What is the maximum characters (including spaces) allowed in a single tweet?
a. 55
b. 90
c. 140
d. 120


The students went over the different kinds of bias and then shared a TED Talk by Oklahoma State University Provost Bob Sternberg called “None of the Above: Why Standardized Testing Fails.” To view the TED Talk, see:

They then shared a PowerPoint they prepared from the perspective of being raised as “Children of No Child Left Behind,” or NCLB. They pointed out that as youth of NCLB, they constantly compare themselves to test scores; they wonder if the tests hurt those they’re designed to help most; and they wonder how much the tests reflect cultural and other biases. They defined bias as: the pattern of information presented in such a way that results in very different performance by individuals who have the same ability, but perhaps different ethnic, sexual, cultural or religious groups.

Saida pointed out that there are still many textbooks and cultural artifacts that reflect bias (such as the currently used Massachusetts Bay Colony Official Seal from 1780 that shows a Native American man saying “Come over and help us” to rationalize colonization). Because of this, our tests are inevitably steeped in bias that must be critically examined in order to close equity gaps.

Mekhi pointed out the different types of bias, including bias with gender, culture, regional, ethnic and racial, language, socio-economic and bias impacting students with special needs.

Loren reviewed the history of test bias, discussing how tests were used: to sterilize poor performers in the 1900’s; to rig immigration quotas and rank ethnic groups in the 1920’s; and more recently, to institutionalize deaf children, discriminate against women and alienate teachers of color from the profession of teaching. He also talked about “stereotype threat,” the self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to students performing as expected.

The students offered their own solutions to test bias, including training test evaluators to view the assessments through a cultural lens and inviting more teachers and students to help design policy.

To end their workshop, the students took comments from the workshop participants. One attendee said that colleges will lose valuable skill sets if they don’t learn how to assess students’ empathy, teamsmanship, sense of responsibility and cooperative abilities. Another student said that she has been “so lost in the pressure of doing well that she doesn’t remember most of what she’s learned.” Another pointed out how she generally did well on tests, but that didn’t help her with the ability to effectively manage on-line learning. A teacher spoke to how “tons of money” is being diverted to time and staffing for test preparation, but that many students are “giving up before they even take the test, and that not learning is one strategy they employ.” A parent raised a concern that her child might be punished if he chose to opt out of testing. Another adult said there was legitimacy to that, as Native American students who receive federal funding in Wisconsin are being threatened if they opt out of testing. As a final comment, a student participant ended the workshop by saying that whatever we do, we need to develop “intensive race consciousness.” She said that “race is a key issue here”–and that identity work with students was critical in moving forward.

Test Results:
1) This is an example of cultural bias, this time in favor of students who have studied history with a critical lens. The correct answer is d) women who refused to give up their seat on a bus before Rosa Parks, to illustrate that there were many actors involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and that Rosa Parks was carefully chosen as the best candidate to symbolize resistance to segregation.

2) The correct answer is d) all of the above. This is an example of religious bias to shed light on our assumptions about people from Arab regions and geographies where the Muslim faith is practiced.

3) Here the answer is c) 140, reflecting an age bias, as young people who have grown up with technology are more familiar with Twitter.

4) This question illustrates a special needs bias, as the question would be a challenge for creative thinkers, or people with dyslexia. If one were to strictly count F’s, the answer is nine. However, some test takers will see the F’s within the E’s for a total of 24 F’s. When a teacher complained that this should not be an issue given that an “E” is an “E,” and an “F” is an “F,” the students said, “But we’ve designed the test so we get to determine the answer.” One of the adults in the workshop said that any answer would be invalid: because the phrase did not have a period at the end, it’s not a sentence!

S.t.a.r.t.: Youth Action Retreat and Other Accomplishments

May 27, 2014

S.t.a.r.t.: Youth Action Retreat and Other Accomplishments

S.t.a.r.t. culminated the 2013/14 school year with three powerful events that highlight both the potential and the influence of our work.

May 22, 2014: Youth Action Retreat

Students in the photograph above were planners for the first “Youth Action Retreat” hosted on May 22, 2014 by St. Mary University’s Culturally-Responsive Teaching Program and the Minneapolis Public Schools. S.t.a.r.t. students Kellie Winchell, Amirah Ellison and Nagma Garane played a strong role in helping to convene planning sessions and engaging student leaders from Edina, Southwest and Washburn High Schools. We also worked in collaboration with student performers and change agents from the group Voices for Change, graduates from Anoka-Hennepin area schools.

Approximately 125 students from two middle and six high schools came together with the overall objective of networking among groups working for racial justice, sharing ideas, training one another to create sustainable and realistic action plans and leaving the retreat with an action plan and toolkit for the 2014-15 school year. Students worked individually, in their school groups and across schools to talk about ways they could work constructively to close equity gaps within their schools.

In the first hour of the retreat, s.t.a.r.t. students Kellie Winchell and Amirah Ellison guided students with a mix-it-up activity in which students found “someone they could learn from or teach about” using questions about equity, such as “What is racial equity?” or “What was the Civil Rights Act of 1964?”

S.t.a.r.t. student Nagma Garane worked with Southwest High School senior Tamera Larkins to teach the retreat attendees about the “Iceberg of Student Voice,” a concept adapted from John Gerber’s “The Iceberg: A Tool for Guiding Systemic Thinking” and questions provided by Voices for Change leaders Stephon Rene, Amarachi Alaike, Isaac Ewumi and Kirsten Alfaro. Students were paired with allies through a “musical circle” exercise using Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” With their partners, they explored such tip-of-the-iceberg questions as:

• “How is student voice being used?” and
• “Which voices are heard?”

They also answered below-the-water questions, such as:

• “Which voices are unheard?”
• “What are the barriers against student voice?” and
• “How do we disrupt this pattern?”

Nagma and Tamera also introduced students to a “Power Mapping Exercise,” through which they were to reflect upon influencers in their school environments (other student groups, teachers, staff, parents, community members, media, etc.) and where to “map” them in a grid that considers axis such as which are the most powerful and strongly support student objectives and which strongly oppose the objectives or are least influential.

Using beat box, hip hop and spoken word, the Voices for Change students guided the students throughout the day with individual creative reflection. Over the lunch hour, students wrote their answers to the prompt, “I will use my voice to….” The exercise inspired retreat attendees to create and share their own poetry and spoken word with one another.

In the afternoon, students paired with other schools and groups with similar goals to talk specifically about strategies for accountability and sustainability, considering what accountability looks like—and planning the meetings, check-ins and calls to keep one another informed.

Special guests to the Retreat included School Board candidate Iris Altamirano along with two Arab and two Palestinian leaders from Israel visiting the U.S. through the organization “Promoting Tolerance through Education.” The educational leaders joined us through a collaboration of s.t.a.r.t., the State Department and the MN International Center. One of the visitors, Ms. Nasreen Haj-Yahya said that the retreat was the most beautiful thing that she had ever witnessed in the United States!

The Youth Action Retreat ended with a performance by Stephon René from Voices for Change singing his song “Unknown Future,” with the line “We can overcome as long as we do it together!”

May 12, 2014

bushCONNECT: On May 12, 2014, s.t.a.r.t. leaders Lamia Abukhadra, Elek Harris-Szabo and Fatuma Abdi attended the day-long event bushCONNECT Inspire, Equip and Connect networking event with co-advisors Terrall Lewis and Kate Towle to strengthen connections across networks of community leaders. The event included change agents from 30 different partner organizations from the states of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The event opened with a live broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio featuring best-selling author Steven Johnson talking about his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.” Johnson opened by speaking about the adage, “Conference rooms are where ideas go to die,” introducing the themes of “surprising collisions” and how 15% of the time, innovations are born from a process of the “slow hunch,” with multiple periods of tinkering, trial and error, and what Johnson referred to as “failing forward.”

Johnson encouraged the audience to keep a “spark file,” a place where we can record and monitor our own good ideas and said that innovation also springs from an inner-vacation, or “ino-vacation,” where we learn to place ourselves outside of common practices (such as conference rooms) to experiment with our ideas. He said that in the process of innovation, there are many “ideas that stay wrong for too long,” including “cultural blind spots,” and that ironically, the only way past them is to develop a “certain tolerance for failure” within ourselves. Eventually, he pointed out, we get through the failures to the brilliant idea.

The day’s workshops were filled with brilliant ideas, from work sessions on “The Escalator Speech” and a crash course on “Improv,” to a collaborative mosaic project, mind/body yoga instruction and salons with local thought leaders (including Karen Diver, Chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Bank of Lake Superior Chippewa and Margaret Anderson Kelliher, CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association). Attendees were randomly assigned to salons and workshops, with the mix-it-up activity of negotiating for tickets from other attendees if they wished to attend a session for which they did not have a ticket.

The closing performance was an improvisational skit by actors from the troupe “The Theater of Public Policy” who performed a series of spin-offs from conversations and themes they had experienced throughout the day addressing the themes of innovation and “failing forward.” Leaders from the choral music organization “VocalEssence,” including their Founder and Artistic Director Philip Brunelle guided the entire audience in rounds and spoken word to keep us on our toes right until the end. To wrap up the day, s.t.a.r.t. student Lamia Abukhadra had an artist complete her “Career-cature,” an artistic profile of the career paths Lamia is likely to take as she continues to develop herself as a leader.
We are grateful to Michael Bischoff of the Social Innovation Lab for extending this invitation to the 2013/14 co-chairs of s.t.a.r.t. for their courage and commitment to leadership with intercultural bridging in our schools and community.

April 9, 2014

On April 9, 2014, s.t.a.r.t.’s Co-Chair Kyra Hood received a 2014 PeaceMaker Award for herself and for s.t.a.r.t. as part of Minneapolis Youth Violence Prevention Week. The Award is voted upon by representatives of the Minneapolis Health Department, Minneapolis Public Schools and PeaceMaker Minnesota to individuals and organizations whose work is focused on promoting peace and preventing violence in our Minneapolis schools.

During the 2013/14 school year, Kyra has acted as the Liaison to bring students together across cultural ethnicities and student groups. Kyra also presented the s.t.a.r.t. model to adults in a workshop entitled “Courageous Conversations for Nice Minnesotans” for the organization “Creating Resolution.” She also took on the commitment of presenting a workshop at the Twin Cities Social Justice Fair in October 2013. Kyra’s communication with educators following that workshop resulted in an invitation for s.t.a.r.t. students to co-develop teaching curriculum for the Associate Dean in the U of M’s College of Education and Human Development. Finally, Kyra co-presented a workshop entitled “Youth Telling: Why We Need to Get it Right (Not White)” at the Overcoming Racism Conference. The commitment required extensive preparation, and Kyra received high marks by the workshop participants.

Through her work in s.t.a.r.t., Kyra has been a valued contributor and leader. Her ability to inspire both peers and educators has transformed not only her own school, but other schools and organizations. She has just been accepted into Penumbra Summer Institute for Theatre and Social Justice!