Guest Blogger: Dajia Maestas
“ [You] were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that [you] were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: [you] were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
It was my freshman year at Manual High school. I didn’t realize how much this quote related to me until I was an actual student at Manual High School. I was a student in a red school that was 98% percent minority and 99% free reduced lunch. I had only been a 9th grader for about two days before my Geography teacher told us how shocked his white friends were that he had a choice to teach at Manual and another high school and he still chose Manual. His friend asked him “Why Manual? Haven’t you heard about the people around there in that area?” That was when I realized I was one of “those people”. To him and others, I was just a statistic, a stereotype to anyone outside of my community. That was when I realized that when someone asks me where I go to school and I say Manual, that I will instantly be destined for failure…most likely to drop out and let the ‘streets’ consume me. However, within that building and in the community, great powerful and real change was made. I had powerful literacy experiences at Manual: campaigning to keep our school open, presenting poems from a project I designed with another peer, being able to close the digital divide, and getting my first and very own laptop by writing a grant. My experiences made me realize I had a voice and that as young as I was, even though I wasn’t the teacher I still made a difference in the community around me. I was no longer going to be a statistic.
By my senior year 12 of my peers (Class of 2017) and I had already made it as a point that the system was NOT going to silence us. But we were seeing how it was silencing and failing our peers. One time we heard a student who was younger than us say “my hands are broken, I can’t write,” just so he didn’t have to write an essay in class. We were shocked that he didn’t realize how much power he was giving away. We were compelled to start a Writing Center, after we had used writing for 3 years to make change we realized our peers didn’t get the same opportunity. This was a place where students work together to develop the skills and confidence they need to reclaim the power of voice and become powerful agents of social change. We dedicated our senior year and all of our free time to advocate for our peers to express themselves, build confidence, discover their power through writing in order to reach their full potential and challenge injustices going on around them either at home, at school, or in their community. After we had graduated, another founder of the writing center and I continued beyond high school and moved the center into the community with current Manual students (9News Feature). We wanted to continue advocating, but on a bigger level for all students in our community.
That is around the same time that the Community Design Team (CDT) started for Empower Community High School. To me, Empower resembles the writing center but in the form of a school. I joined this team because I want my son and my younger sister (who is currently in 7th grade and would be in this high school’s first graduating class) to get an education that not only prepares them for college but one that prepares them for life. An education that is culturally responsive and grounded in reality, and most importantly close to home. For years I was commuting 1-2 hours from Aurora to Denver just to get to school for an education that I was content with. I will continue to serve on the CDT even if the school doesn’t get approved by Aurora Public Schools this year because I am determined to give my community an education that they deserve that’s close to home and teaches students that they can be the teacher too. MY community does not deserve to make peace with mediocrity, but to aspire to excellence.
Empower is a school that fits the community’s needs because it’s being designed by the community. I promise you will be inspired when you see students, educators, families, and community fighting together to transform education. It is a pretty powerful space to be in. I urge you to support your community in opening the school we have designed for our students, our children, and our families. It’s time we offer a school where our students feel capable, powerful, and valued here in their own neighborhood.
Interested in learning more? Join us at the next Community Design Team Meeting on Wednesday, April 16th (details here) and experience it for yourself.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact me personally at Dajia@hncollective.org