Empowering Students and Families to Become Self-Advocates

Empowering Students and Families to Become Self-Advocates

Parents and educators are taking action in the pursuit of transparency and democracy in school politics. Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education (RYH) “engages, informs and empowers parents to protect and strengthen public education for all children in Chicago and Illinois, eliminate inequities in public schools, and work at the grassroots for the public good that is public education,” as stated on RYH’s website.

In the wake of funding issues within Chicago Public Schools [CPS], this group of parents and education professionals collaborated to provide resources for families to better navigate the educational system in Chicago and across Illinois. RYH advocates for the reduction of high-stakes testing, the establishment of an elected school board, the avoidance of school privatization, increased special education services, the protection of student data privacy and the education of families on each student’s rights.

RYH’s website holds a myriad of resources for students and families, including updated educational research, tool kits for understanding school budgets, testing, special education and the contact information of local and state representatives to help make family voices heard. While many of their resources may be found online, one will also see RYH advocating at CPS board meetings and community events, elevating the voices of parents and families.

On the ground, RYH engages the community in workshops such as the “Parents Know Your Rights” workshop where families are educated on their students’ rights in the field of special education. In this workshop, RYH provides families with materials to organize the forms and documents necessary to understand and track their students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEP). In RYH’s Local School Council  Empowerment (LSC) workshops in the near south side  neighborhoods, RYH educates people on the responsibilities of the Local School Council. By providing families with these resources, RYH has not only empowered families to advocate for their own students, but for policy issues which affect whole school districts. Making resources accessible to all, RYH has established a level of transparency, along with a thirst for and ability to create action!

Call to Action:

Call to Action: Grow Your Own Illinois

Call to Action: Grow Your Own Illinois

Students come from numerous social backgrounds, each with their different world views, circumstances and needs. Therefore, teachers need to be prepared to handle that variety of world views. Grow Your Own Illinois, or GYO, understands the necessity for teachers to not only understand the needs of students, but empathize with them as well. Thus, for the past 11 years GYO has dedicated itself to mobilizing and aiding prospective teachers of diverse backgrounds to teach in minority communities.

GYO’s mission has hit some rough times in recent years. I spoke with Kate Van Winkle, the director of GYO, to try and understand some of the trouble the organization has been facing. As of 2015, the organization no longer receives state funding, which led to the closing of all the other offices save for the Chicago office. However, this is not the only problem that the organization has faced. Among those, students have trouble passing the Test of Academic Proficiency, which is needed to be approved to teach. Only 30 percent of students pass the test, of which Van Winkle told me that the students reported either the content of the test was highly irrelevant to their studies or that they had general troubles with their test taking skills and strategies. Other problems include the kind of student GYO needs to empower. Previously, GYO focused on training adults that have already been in the workforce and had interest in becoming teachers. There is a bias to recruit younger students out of high school and in college rather than adults that have already begun their education or have been out of college for years. As such, GYO has needed to restructure and re-prioritize the kinds of students they empower.

The organization has taken steps to start reorganizing. Currently, it is experimenting with a program with Waukegan High School to offer credits for high school students that are interested in a career in education. GYO is also continuing to search for new ways to secure funding for its graduates.

 

CALL TO ACTION

 

Given the scope of the project and the need to revitalize the effort to bring empathetic education to students, Chicago Rises invites readers who are passionate about education to help out GYO. First off, any donations made are welcome. Second, any individuals passionate about educating and want to apply to GYO’s program, there is still time to apply; the deadline is in September. It is important to keep these programs alive for the sake of empowering not just the youth, but our workforce.


GYO’s site: http://www.growyourownteachers.org

For Donations: http://www.growyourownteachers.org/donate

For Applications: http://www.growyourownteachers.org/apply

Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative provides foster youth, ‘self sufficiency’ and ‘self love’

Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative provides foster youth, ‘self sufficiency’ and ‘self love’

Since 2014 Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative (CYOI), a Chicago based non-profit organization, has provided youth in foster care with tools to achieve their chosen career paths and become self reliant adults. Brittiney Jones, Executive Director of CYOI, started the organization after realizing a lack of resources was available for Chicago youth who were not emotionally or financially supported by their birth parents. “There was not only limited funding for foster youth,” Jones explained. “But also there is a growing number of youth that are identified to be youth in care or homeless.” Jones said that her own life circumstances and experiences with similar challenges motivated her to launch CYOI.

According to The Illinois Department of Children & Family Services, a “Youth in Care” is defined as a child or youth that “The DCFS Guardianship Administrator has been awarded either temporary or permanent legal custody (wards), and have been placed by DCFS in Emergency Reception Centers (ERC, formerly known as shelters), with a foster parent, relative caregiver, in a residential facility or in a Youth Transitional Living Program.”

CYOI Co-Founder and Director of Youth Development, Alayna Washington partnered with Jones soon after the organization began its mission to empower foster youth in Chicago. Washington leads a team to help expand the curriculum and she is a spokesperson for the organization. She said CYOI provides academic mentorship, emotional support and assistance to foster youth to help them pursue their career goals.  

In Youth Development sessions, CYOI provides youth the opportunity to reflect on positive and negative feelings they may be experiencing about their personal or academic pursuits. “That is our way of having a community conversation about things they would like to change or be changed,” Washington said. CYOI also assists youth in achieving their personal and academic goals by encouraging them to set specific goals they are responsible for achieving throughout the year. ”This year a lot of our students had goals to improve in their math classes,” Washington said. “A third of them increased their grades from a “D” to a “B” average”. Washington said CYOI is vital for foster youth in Chicago because some youth may exhibit negative behavior without frequent mentorship from positive role models.

Keishona Morris, who became a mentee in CYOI at age 14, said the organization helped her to secure an internship in engineering. She said her ideal career field is robotic and mechanical engineering. Morris explained that CYOI has prepared her for success in job interviewing and what clothing choices are acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace. CYOI also helped her to understand the job description for the engineering roles she is interested in pursuing. ”I would never have had a chance to improve my life without CYOI,” she said.

 

Call to Action:

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/