About A+ Colorado’s Community Engagement Blogs
At A+ Colorado, it is incredibly important that we are engaged with the work and initiatives led by local grassroots organizations. A principle goal of our organization is to be involved and supportive of community led efforts. We strongly believe that one of the first steps to doing this is through attending community events and listening. After listening and understanding, we hope to build on these relationships with local groups and support them in their efforts to transform public education in Colorado. A+ hopes the community can enjoy and learn from these blogs. Know of an upcoming community event? We would love to be there! Please reach out and let us know.
A+ Ventures with VOYCE
At the beginning of August, Project VOYCE, a local organization which works to develop transformational leaders in underrepresented communities, hosted Venture with VOYCE, an evening brunch event (yes, you read that right). The event highlighted the different advocacy projects their student participants developed throughout the VOYCE Summer Academy. It was only fitting the event took place at Manual High School – a school with a rich history and extensive ties to Project VOYCE’s inception. As the new Director of Advocacy for A+ Colorado, I was extremely excited to attend the event, gain a better understanding of Project VOYCE’s work, and above all – LEARN about the unique initiatives each student group was advocating for.
The audience was radically diverse with over 120 community members from different ages, backgrounds, and races. One reason for this? It was financially accessible as tickets ranged from $5 for students to $15 for adults. In addition, simultaneous translation services were provided. This is important for community groups to take note of, including A+ Colorado, because it doesn’t matter how well orchestrated your event is if it isn’t accessible to all communities. As expected, everyone I interacted with was especially friendly (after all, they were there to support student-led work). I like to think I developed new relationships throughout the night.
The event kicked off with staff members thanking their sponsors which ranged from local businesses to generous individuals, along with a group of their volunteers who helped prepare the food we brunched on (the fried cauliflower was no joke!). We were then introduced to Vanessa Roberts, Project VOYCE’s Executive Director since May 2019. She proudly spoke about the work their students have participated in throughout the summer, the personal growth she has seen in all of them, and her vision for Project VOYCE moving forward. She emphasized that the organization, based on student demand and feedback, was going to begin advocating for issues beyond education, such as immigration and environmental justice. Personally, it’s always exciting to see grassroots organizations grow in terms of their capacity and scope of mission!
Student Leader addresses the crowd. Photo Credit: Project VOYCE Facebook Page
After half-an-hour of introductions and brunching, it was time for the main event – student workshops! In total, there were four workshops:
- Left in the Research (Focused on Environmental Justice)
- Undocumented? You have Rights (Focused on Immigration)
- Empowering Youth through Restorative Justice Practices (Focused on Restorative Justice)
- Create: Culturally Responsive, Engaged Art to Equalize (Focused on Cultural Art)
The schedule provided ~25 minutes per workshop, giving community members enough time to attend two different workshops. Unfortunately, this meant we were unable to see all of the workshops, but it was for the best as it prevented presentation fatigue from the students. Unsurprisingly, I attended the Empowering Youth through Restorative Justice Practices and the Create: Culturally Responsive, Engaged Art to Equalize workshops since they were directly related to education (although all of the issues covered are just as important).
Workshop 1 Reflection: Empowering Youth through Restorative Justice Practices
The workshop began with an interactive activity in which the students shared five different scenarios and the audience had to indicate whether they could relate to it. Two of these scenarios included: a physical encounter with police and the experience of being suspended from school. Admittedly, I raised my hand for one of these scenarios and it felt reassuring to see fellow audience members (mostly people of color) also relate to these experiences. After this intimate and vulnerable experience, the students began stressing data which showed that students of color were generally disciplined more severely and more frequently than their white counterparts (e.g., nationally black students are suspended and expelled three times more than white students). The most appalling figure for me was a data-point that showed 96% of the expulsions carried out by Denver Public Schools were against students of color. It is extremely important to note however, school discipline data is self-reported, so in other words, schools are not mandated to report this data. Instead, they opt-in and willfully choose to release this information to the Colorado Department of Education. This is a major issue as we ultimately do not know what discipline records look like at schools. Regardless, the students did a great job using available discipline data and raising this conversation of non-transparent information.
To counter these disciplinary practices/policies which disproportionately affect students of color, the students discussed the importance of restorative justice and how it can be applied as a conflict mediation tool. North High School was cited as a school effectively applying restorative justice practices and working closely with students to understand behavioral issues, as opposed to simply punishing them. Eventually, the workshop narrowed down to the topic of mental health and the urgent need for DPS to invest in social workers, restorative practice coordinators, and counselors instead of continuously hiring School Resource Officers (SROs). After all, in a 2017 survey conducted by Healthy Kids Colorado, roughly 30% of DPS students reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities during the past 12 months. At this point, students began to describe their own experiences at school and their concern that SROs continue to enable these harsh disciplinary policies and reinforce the school to prison pipeline for youth of color. Above all, the students emphasized their demand and advocacy efforts to push DPS to adopt restorative justice practices into their disciplinary policy.
As a person of color, this workshop highly resonated with me as I grew up watching my friends with disadvantaged backgrounds be unfairly disciplined – essentially reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline. It was extremely powerful that this workshop was facilitated by a group comprised of six students of color, ranging from grades 9 to 12. I talked with them afterwards to express how grateful I was for their work and assured them that I would be an ally in their efforts.
Workshop #2 Reflection: Create Culturally Responsive, Engaged Art to Equalize
Similar to the previous workshop, it began with an interactive activity that forced the audience to critically reflect on their own experiences in school and how it makes them feel. The students presented us with two pieces of art respectively, one was “Western” and the other was “Cultural”. We were given five minutes to examine each art piece and describe how we felt. The “Western” art was described in a more negative light as many audience members cited it as an involuntary part of their education while others saw it as a boring field of art dominated by white men. On the other hand, “Cultural” art was seen as favorable with many citing it as a form of representation, creativity, and vibrance.
Thereafter, the students introduced their vision – an environment which is more equitable and culturally representative for youth of color. To facilitate this, they developed advocacy goals focused on urging DPS to ensure all schools provide ethnic studies and (cultural) art courses, in addition to working alongside local artists to create murals throughout the city. They emphasized the power of cultural art and the positive impact it has on communities, especially for youth of color who often do not feel represented in public spaces and school curriculum. Furthermore, they cited fascinating data from the University of Pennsylvania which showed that the presence of cultural art in lower-income neighborhoods saw an 18% decrease in crime and even an 18% increase in kids scoring in the top stratum on English and math exams (findings were statistically significant). To show the demand and appetite from the public, the students closed with a survey they conducted showing that over 90% of respondents believe that young people can be inspired to make a ‘difference’ in the world through art which helps them learn more about their own cultures.
Overall, this was a well-constructed workshop that presented a two-step solution for ensuring communities have a sense of representation and access to courses where their culture is thoroughly studied. Their creativity was evident throughout the workshop as they incorporated different pieces of cultural art into each slide featuring artists from Carlos Ingroyen to Ricardo Chavez Mendez (my personal favorite!). While art, especially cultural art, usually takes a ‘back seat’ when compared to other education initiatives — these students made it clear that it is not an idea we can afford to underestimate.
Students presenting the Create Culturally Responsive, Engaged Art to Equalize Workshop. Photo Credit: Project VOYCE Facebook Page
After back-to-back workshops, ED Vanessa Roberts gave students an opportunity to reflect on their experience by presenting and further promoting their work. It turned out the workshops were only a ‘preview’ of the entire presentations they had prepared; I felt bamboozled! Instead, the full workshops are 40 minutes long and contain further substance. Vanessa explained that the full workshop trainings are available for all community groups and organizations to receive if they file a fee-for-service inquiry with Project VOYCE here.
After only previewing two workshops, I strongly recommend community members and organizations invest in these trainings as they will expose you to student experiences and their strategies for facilitating change. Alas, the students gave a final bow and thanked everyone for attending/supporting Project VOYCE’s work.
What This Means To Me
Needless to say, I enjoyed this well-orchestrated event all the way from the food, the diverse audience it attracted, the accessibility, and of course – the workshops. There were several times throughout the night where I became emotional because it meant a lot to see youth of color approach systemic challenges and introduce initiatives to address them. Although, it is easy to be disillusioned and pessimistic of the future because of daily news coverage along with our political climate – these students make me hopeful for the future and the energy their generation will bring to civil discourse. Thank you again for the event, Project VOYCE.