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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:

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