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

December 6, 2016

missing-voices-team

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:  smumn.edu/missing voices. To learn about the Graduate Certificate in Culturally-Responsive Teaching, visit: smumn.edu/crt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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