Authentic Community Engagement in Schools: How to Hear What is Not Being Said

Authentic Community Engagement in Schools: How to Hear What is Not Being Said

In the fall of 2016, Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts reopened as an open – enrollment, arts high school.  Now a level one high school located in the heart of Washington Park, Dyett High School of the Arts was born out of both struggle and compromise, as community stakeholders raised their voices and District leadership responded to their call to ensure that area students could receive a high quality education in a school that is nestled in the heart of the community.  Today, as the principal of this school, I am inspired by the level of authentic engagement and commitment to excellence the community exhibits daily. Both Bronzeville and Washington Park residents hold us accountable, provide support, and challenge us to provide the best education possible to our students.

Having said that, many have asked, both parents and educators alike, how our team managed to effectively engage community stakeholders.  And while the work, for me, was an extremely intuitive process, grounded in love for my community and passion for children, I can say that the following guiding principles were crucial to our attempts to gain authentic community engagement in and hear what was not being said.

1. Define and communicate your “North Star” clearly and consistently.

For all intents and purposes, “North Star” is the goal, mission, or vision that drives anyone’s work.  In this case, I am and always have been committed to ensuring that students have access to high – quality education, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or zip code.  It was my job, as the incoming principal, to reiterate that vision at every community meeting, every town hall, and every breakfast I attended.  Not only that.  It was also our team’s job to design a curricular scope and sequence that reflected these principles.  That is why we offer AP classes at the freshman level, early college courses, and much more.  You see – the truth is that I have never met community members who wanted anything less than good schools for their children, and when I identified that as my “North Star,” the path to collaboration became less difficult.

2. Focus on what binds us, not what divides us.

During my year of planning, I attended several meetings – meetings in which some people supported the concept of a new school and others did not.  But during those times, I kept one thing in mind – that was that in a crowded room of people who voiced opinions on one side or the other, everyone ultimately wanted one thing – that was to prepare our children for the future by equipping them with the skills necessary to compete in a global economy.  So, at every meeting, I took the opportunity to remind each adult in the room that we had similar goals.  We all wanted students to have robust science programs.  We all wanted students to have robust math programs, and allowing students to pursue their passion in the arts made them more likely to engage.  So, we focused.  We focused not on the nuances that separated us, but instead, the similarities that were interwoven throughout each elevated voice.  By doing so, little by little, bit by bit, we were able to build bridges where craters of separation had otherwise existed.

3. Identify what people fear, and speak directly to that.

Several months prior to opening the new school, I conducted listening tours.  During those tours, people expressed a wide range of emotions.  In some spaces, people questioned my authenticity.  They questioned my motives.  They questioned whether or not I truly cared about the community’s students and parents.  And while I listened to what parents said, I also heard what they did not say.  I listened, intently, to identify their fears.  When people yelled, “Where were you when we had to comfort students?” I heard, “Will you abandon us?  Will you betray us?”  When people yelled, “Our students are already talented artists!  They need science and math!”  I heard, “Our students need to be able to compete for jobs!  Can you guarantee that your team’s curriculum will do so?!”  Instead of focusing on the noise, we made a conscious decision to focus on nuanced mission and vision.

Even with the aforementioned suggestions, the truth is that obtaining authentic community engagement is not a perfect process.  It is oftentimes messy and unpredictable.  But if all of the adults involved galvanize around a common mission and vision, ensuring students’ success, it can serve as the oil in the engine of change and academic excellence.

Changing children’s lives through dancing

Changing children’s lives through dancing

How great would it be if the world was one big “Step Up” movie, where all conflicts can be resolved through dancing your feelings away?

You’re right, it would be amazing! Thanks to one non-profit, this idea is not so far-fetched to many young people in Chicago.

Everybody Dance Now! [EDN] is a national organization with different chapters around the country that offers free or low-cost dance programming to elementary and middle school students (and soon high school students as well). Jordan Ordonez, the Chicago chapter director, explained that EDN uses dance as a vehicle for youth empowerment and community building. They chose hip hop because it is the cheapest and most relatable option – kids can wear whatever they were wearing to school.

EDN started in Santa Barbara, California with a fourteen-year-old named Jackie Rotman. She started teaching at the local community center and it quickly branched out. Years later her dad was catching up with an old high school friend when he told him to “google my daughter”. This friend was no one less than Sophia Horwich’s father, the girl who brought EDN to Chicago. By that time, Horwich was a DePaul student and EDN then began as a student organizations where college students could volunteer. The club later became the Chicago chapter.

Besides offering dance classes, which can be either summer or semester sessions (at locations near schools), EDN has other programs as well. They offer an enrichment program in the middle of each session, where they bring a guest teaching artist. They tend to invite instructors of different types of dance, such as Latin, Polynesian, and even the Chicago Footwork. The idea is to show students the different goals they can pursue within dancing.

They also have an annual showcase, where they bring all the classes together. This year’s showcase is in June, at the Harold Washington Cultural Center. Each student will be partnered with a community dancer to do 2 vs. 2 youth battle and breaking. The battles are a new addition to the annual showcase, and according to Ordonez the students are very excited about it. They are quickly learning that there is more to dancing than just performances, such as battling for example.

The showcase will also consist of a hip hop dance summit, where children can meet community dancers and learn how dancing can be used as a means to express, resolve conflicts, advocate and can even become a career.

Ordonez also shared future plans for the program – EDN is piloting a wellness and leadership program. For the wellness aspect, the organization aims to bring nutritionists to teach kids about grocery shopping and healthy eating habits as well as a fitness coach to show them how to treat their bodies well in order to be good dancers. For the leadership part of the program, they are looking into bringing a life coach to show the students how to set up goals. As Ordonez explained, EDN is exploring “What else can we do now that we have their attention?”

Call to Action

There are four different ways to help EDN:

  1. Donate! As a non-profit, EDN appreciates any financial support you can offer
  2. Interact with them on social media. They have an Instagram page that you can follow and increase their audience
  3. Get physically involved by becoming one of their faculty if you have dance experience
  4. Volunteer your time! EDN has a wide range of volunteers – dance instructors, therapists, journalists, video editors. Fill out their form here.
Rhea Mahanta and The Peacebuilding Project

Rhea Mahanta and The Peacebuilding Project

While it is easy to get caught up in the current political climate, there are individuals who rise up and push to enact change. Rhea Mahanta is one of those individuals. Mahanta, a graduate student at the University of Chicago currently pursuing her master’s degree in International Affairs as a member of the Committee of International Relations [CIR], singlehandedly founded the Peacebuilding Project, an organization dedicated to the academic instruction of conflict resolution and outreach towards afflicted communities. I interviewed Mahanta to get the gritty details of how she pulled off such a feat.

José Porrata- Thank you for giving me the chance to interview you. How about you tell me a bit about yourself and how you became interested in conflict resolution.

Rhea Mahanta- Well, I grew up in a very under developed region in Northeast India, and I saw how conflict took hold of everyday life. And rather than responding to conflict with more violence, I wanted to understand how we could change social structures in order to resolve conflictive situations. All my life I studied topics related to politics, social service and development, and I wanted to incorporate my knowledge at both the grassroots and diplomatic levels. In trying to understand both these levels, I decided to study at the University of Chicago.

So, from what I gathered from looking at the project from a distance, it seems to me that it’s an educational project dedicated to showing the community what’s going on in the world. Is this vision of the Peacebuilding Project correct?

Absolutely. I like to think that the project has two components. The first is creating academic awareness on topics of conflict resolution, peace building, the science of peace building, all of which seems to be lacking in academia. The second component is taking that knowledge and translating it in order to have it impact the community, so the same people that are attending our workshops, conferences, and training sessions on conflict resolution are going out to the community and volunteering and doing humanitarian work.

You mentioned that the Peacebuilding Project does workshops and conferences. Could you go into more detail in how it goes about engaging both the academic and social communities?

Most of our engagement has been limited to on campus, with some social outreach programs we have implemented which I’ll get at in a bit. First, what we do is host sessions on campus such as our launch Workshop Session on Conflict Resolution and Mediation. So, we had around 60 people attending, and we trained them under the head trainer from the Chicago Center for Conflict Resolution who taught ways to carry out conflict mediation. Our second session was a panel on Religion and Peacebuilding. We just explored different tenants of peacebuilding and what kinds of tools we can adopt in our everyday lives. At the moment we have done activities around twice a month, then we had our third session with Syrian refugees to learn about the hardships they had to go through after coming to the US after leaving behind what they had back at their old homes. Our next session would be [will] on the behavior of conflict management, basically how psychology plays a role in conflict resolution. We partner up with local NGOs [Non-Government Organizations] and invite them to present their research and show us what methods work and we show that information to bodies such as the Pearson Institute [for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts] at the Harris School [of Public Policy at University of Chicago] and encourage them to explore these topics in more detail. We also have a steady program of volunteers who go to the Syrian Community Network in the north of Chicago and they engage with the community through tutoring of Syrian Children and linking up certain students with our volunteers and have them mentored in how to apply to college, scholarships, take language tests and the like.

Wow. That’s a noble endeavor the project has undertaken. I am curious though, how did this project start?

This is a long story. In the interwar period, in the 30’s and 40’s, there was a huge anti-war movement in U-Chicago. The president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, led this anti-war movement and invested in a world government doctrine and somewhere along the line that development died down. The Pearson Institute was then launched in 2015 dedicated to the study and resolution of conflict, which made me want to come to the University. I thought that there was a lot I could do through this University in the field. When I arrived, it was a lot of research on conflict itself but none whatsoever in the peace processes by which one resolves conflict. Say, you are studying conflict in Colombia: you study how the conflict came about but not the mechanisms in which peace treaties and ceasefires are implemented and sustained. There really was no insight into ‘how do we get out of conflict’ or ‘what happens after conflict’. I met with professors all over the University and I realized that if a program doesn’t exist, I’d have to create one! This was encouraged due to my experience attending the Alliance for Peacebuilding Conference in October 2017 in D.C. This gave me a lot of insight into what kinds of topics I could explore and when I came back I applied for funding.

Quite an impressive history! It took a lot of research! I can only imagine. Could you give me a bit more insight as who you contacted and partnered with to fund and promote the Project?

We have a lot of partners both inside and outside the University that have shown a lot of interest in the project. For starters, I owe it to the Graduate Council in UChicago, who organized the Think Tank trek in November. I got to talking to different representatives about my project and what they could do to help out. After talking to the Grad Council and getting sponsorship, I got the approval to make the first workshop and reached out to the Chicago Center for Conflict Resolution, where they agreed to talk to our students. The Peace Exchange, whom I was a speaker for, were also invested in the project. We are trying to incorporate their educational models on conflict resolution and build upon them to use them on schools at the south side of Chicago. Next, the Obama Foundation gave me training to start off this project; they had a community training day. I met President Obama, and for 12 hours we discussed how to actually engage with communities and individuals and teach them how to make our project ideas into a reality. Finally, our partnership with the Syrian Community Network has been paramount to our engagement. Oh, and the Pearson Institute has funded our Dinners with Refugees during Ramadan.

As a fellow U Chicago student, I know the think tank trek gave you the capacity to work on the project. As an individual, I’m quite surprised and amazed at the capacity that the University has helped out. Color me intrigued.

Well, what I told you is the rosy side of things. I managed to do all of this during my limited time as an M.A. student. The project will die down if I don’t find someone to carry the project forward. As you know, the CIR’s program is a one-year program, and it cuts the investment I can offer to the project due to the small time period. Also, the Project has no money of its own, and application for funding is done on an event-by-event basis. You need to go through the tedious application process and accept the limited amount of funding the University can give, as well as the venues we can use. We can’t fly in the guests we want due to the Project currently not being registered as a student organization. It’s also a year-long process that due to time constraints, as mentioned, we can’t do.

First, do you feel that there are individuals that can continue on your legacy by using your connections and knowledge to continue the Project within UChicago and outside of the University into other areas in Chicago where there are afflicted communities? Second, has the project considered undertaking fundraising events to be able to fly in individuals to participate in training workshops?

I haven’t even Googled how to go about fundraising. We got selected for the Clinton Global University Initiative, which means that in October, me and two of my teammates will be meeting with potential donors from across the world and whether or not they can offer the necessary funding for our project. UChicago also has offered grants for training public school students, which we plan to use to incorporate ADR training, which stands for Alternative Dispute Resolution. We were hoping to demonstrate how punishment and detention for negative, criminal behavior have not been effective in reforming individuals and reducing crime rates for youth in the south side of Chicago. The students would be offered to take ADR training and learn to manage behavior and emotions, or they would be punished for their behavior. Introducing a program like this in schools would be great for showing how conflict management can help improve society, but we’d have to partner up with the education system and get the green light to implement the program, as well as getting legitimate ADR trainers for the program. We are hoping to get responses to implement these projects, but we haven’t heard back yet.

As for someone who can take up the torch, everyone I worked with is graduating. However, we are reaching to incoming students to see if they are interested in joining and managing the Project. My faculty has been really helpful in supporting the project and are the ones trying to reach out to incoming students. It’s hard to be committed in to managing a project like this in UChicago. Volunteering once a week isn’t a big deal, but even if managing the Peacebuilding Project doesn’t take much effort, which fortunately it doesn’t even if it seems that way, classes and other things take up too much time. Leading the project also sounds very intimidating and that pushes away prospective recruits.

Even so, you managed to create an extremely solid foundation for the Peacebuilding Project, and tangentially you will be working with the project to train the next generation.

Yeah, like, I’m not leaving the Project, just the University. I’ll still be engaged with our partners, just that we need an on-campus insider and coordinator for the project to continue, as well as a decent number of volunteers.

So, having the dirty insider details, what are the expectations you have for the overall growth of the project? I mean getting the project started basically by yourself is an accomplishment in and of itself.

I wish I could’ve gotten more undergrads involved in the Project earlier. As for further plans, I would like to expand the Project to northeast India. I learned about the ongoing conflicts in my region due to my research in Chicago more so than when I was growing up. I really wish the Project could have a more practical approach to conflict management in that area. I wouldn’t say this is my choice of employment, I really do wish to work in diplomacy in the future and work with already existing organizations in different conflict resolution projects. But this project is something I feel committed to and will always take time to work on when needed, as well as bringing the skills I learn to the Peacebuilding Project.

With your record, I really hope to see you in the diplomatic stage of the world. So, before we go, do you have anything to say to any future diplomats and mediators that want to create their own humanitarian organization?

My biggest recommendation is to work with your university. You would be surprised at the resources available for you when you look for them. Of course, that presents the problem of searching for those resources, and taking time to get them, but if you engage with your faculty and try to create something new, you’ll be able to get a project running to address the right causes. The University of Chicago, in particular, really has been supportive in spite of the bureaucratic processes. Like I said, just look for the necessary help and you’ll be on your way!

Mahanta is a prime example that if a human’s drive to do right is true, we can unite people for the right causes.

You can follow the Peacebuilding Project at: https://www.facebook.com/ThePeacebuildingProject/

 

CPSchools’ Professionals Series

CPSchools’ Professionals Series

The CPSchools’ Professionals Series is a collection of experiences lived and relayed by teachers and education professionals who work in Chicago public schools. Here, teachers, guidance counselors, specialists, coaches, administration, and other professionals in CPS are given the space to speak to their perspective on schooling in Chicago, and how their experiences have informed their outlook on education.

We are now giving these often-undervalued professionals the necessary platform to share their stories, challenges, and triumphs while supporting students in CPS. This series will serve to inform and encourage everyday Chicagoans and policy makers to take action in representation of the students they aim to support.

Stay tuned for CPSchools’ Professionals Series stories coming soon!

Game-Changing Mentoring

Game-Changing Mentoring

Being a mentor can be incredibly rewarding on both ends, but as many professionals know, time is a valuable commodity.  Spark, a career exploration and self-discovery program that brings middle-schoolers to local companies and organizations, has found a way to combat this.  Students are paired up with a mentor to receive direct guidance and to work on projects related to their interests in the company’s local office. Originally launched in the San Francisco Bay Area, Spark expanded to Chicago in 2011 and worked with 68 students that year.  Now in neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Back of the Yards, McKinley Park, Englewood, and Near Southside, 11 schools and 400+ students are paired up with Chicago companies to provide mentor relationships between middle-schoolers and professionals.

Spark students at Vibes: Mobile Marketing Solutions

Lindsay Horwood, who works at Chicago-based mobile marketing and technology company Vibes, began volunteering for Spark at her previous employer and brought the connection over to Vibes.  Since 2012, Vibes and Spark have impacted the young minds of many, providing career exploration and self-discovery opportunities for these middle schoolers. Sahrish Saleem, Senior Manager of Corporate Partnerships at Spark, says the program helps students “understand, experience, and pursue what’s possible for their future.” This year in Chicago, students are working in orthodontics, constructing remote control cars, creating websites, and even rewriting Macbeth to make it more modern and student-friendly.

Since their partnership, Vibes has consistently been recruiting new volunteers for Spark, one of which is Jennifer DeCilles. Horwood and DeCilles say they enjoy watching their mentees grow throughout the program. DeCilles says Vibe’s connection with Spark has given her an “understanding that in being a mentor, you can just be a positive presence or an ear for someone to talk to.”

In the Fall, students work in Spark Labs, where they visit a variety of companies and get to see what each one does on a day-to-day basis.  Come Spring, Spark matches mentors and mentees based on skills used in the workplace and interests of the students. They work on a project that they present on “Share Your Spark,” a culminating showcase held in Daley Plaza that Saleem says is like “a carnival meets a science fair.” Students, mentors, and anyone interested in viewing the projects the students have created celebrate together the accomplishments of the students.

Spark works with students who might not have been exposed to an office environment otherwise.  “Sometimes they are less than a mile from the office, but they live in very different worlds,” Horwood said, highlighting the exposure the students get to the corporate environment but also the insight she now has to Chicago Public Schools.  Both Horwood and DeCilles have found themselves more engaged in CPS and the education system at large because they work with individuals who are directly affected by it.

Spark students at work in the Vibes office

For 14 years nationally and 7 years in Chicago, Spark has impacted the lives of many young individuals.  To continue doing this, they rely on donations to help support the program. This month is the Mentoring Matters Campaign, a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign that allows mentors to share their mentoring stories within their personal networks.  This year, the goal is to raise $40,000. Funds help support transportation for students, background checks for mentors, and general program supplies and maintenance.

Spark and Vibes are making a very real difference in the lives of these young individuals in Chicago. Students are gaining real-life experience in the workplace, building social-emotional skills, and working on team-building, all while uniting diverse communities of students, parents, and professionals. And in the end, DeCilles says, it’s just about “being a friend to these middle-schoolers.”

CALL TO ACTION

  • May is Spark’s designated month to fundraise for its Chicago partnerships, and they have a goal to raise $40,000. Donate here!
  • Interested in partnering your business with Spark? They’d love that! Find out more information here.
  • Check out the program in action! Attend this year’s (free!) “Share Your Spark” Day on June 1st from 3 to 5 PM in Daley Plaza and support the students in the program.

 

Chicago Students Take Action to Promote Change

Chicago Students Take Action to Promote Change

Between its beaches, museums, restaurants, and malls, there’s no shortage of attractions that Chicago has to offer college students. But what can these students offer Chicago?

The People’s Lobby is a grassroots movement focused on fighting structural inequalities by implementing specific policies and electing officials that support those policies to put the interests of the community before big corporations, according to its website. The People’s Lobby addresses issues from wage policy to environmental justice to mass incarceration and more.

What does this have to do with students? Chicago Student Action is a branch of the People’s Lobby that serves as a way of building bases of students on college campuses around the Chicagoland area. From there, students organize on their campuses for issues that affect those campuses directly, as well as coming together as a whole to fight jointly on policies that affect them as Chicago students.

Chicago Student Action members chained themselves up and blocked the intersection in front of the Art Institute to hold a protest and press conference advocating for free higher education.

According to Dominic Marlow, a senior and student organizer at University of Illinois at Chicago, what separates students from other activists is their optimism. “Young people in general are a lot more willing to question the status quo. They have the belief that things can get better a lot more than older people generally do.”

Having grown up during the 2007-2009 U.S. recession and seeing the toll it took on much of his family, Marlow got involved as an activist when he came to college, where he learned “[the recession] was totally avoidable. That was really big for me in realizing the public sector is run by people who are not representing our needs.” He also explained that his exposure to Chciago’s diverse community made him realize “we have been intentionally divided in order to keep us from building anything sustainable to make a government that works for people.”

Chicago Student Action members on their final day of the March to Springfield. Members marched 200 miles from Chicago to Springfield for the People and Planet First Budget.

Unlike many non-profit organizations, which rely on donations of labor, money, and time from their volunteers, Marlow explained that Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby emphasize investing in their members as people to help them develop as leaders. “Our vision is for real powerful communities that can actually advocate for themselves.” Members of Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby strive for “an intersectional movement that is diverse and representative of the people we’re actually fighting for.”

Marlow described some of the accomplishments he has seen during his time with Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby.

  • March to Springfield: In May of 2017, Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby members led a 200-mile march from Chicago to Springfield to fight for the People and Planet First Budget which began with a kickoff rally in downtown Chicago. Once in Springfield, members took part in a sit-in in front of the Governor’s office and held the building for 10 hours before being arrested and moved. That year, the state legislature passed $100 million in revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes.
  • Cook County $13 Minimum Wage: Members of Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby disrupted Cook County budget hearings and organized for electoral work to reclaim some of the commissioners districts. Eventually, they garnered the nine votes needed to pass the $13 minimum wage.
  • Election of Theresa Mah: Theresa Mah is the first Asian-American Woman elected to the Illinois General Assembly.
  • Election of Kim Foxx: Kim Foxx, now the Cook County State’s Attorney, has helped reduce the Cook County jail population by over 1,000 inmates.

 

Call to Action