Building Back Better Means Listening to Young People

By The BELE Network

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This will be part one in a series that features the fearless young people, especially Black and Brown youth, who are reimagining schools as inclusive communities and advocating for equitable, anti-racist systems. But cultivating our present and future leaders requires that schools teach young people more than reading and writing — they must prepare them to become civically engaged citizens who are empowered and equipped to create the world they want to see.

During this period of dual crises, with a global pandemic and systemic racism, it’s more important than ever to listen to our young people and invite them to actively help educators co-design and build back better.

For this piece, we sat down with Amin Robinson, Jonathan Piper II and Kahlil Chatmon, three youth activists with the Kingmakers of Oakland, and Kathleen Osta from the National Equity Project to learn about what they’re doing right now to center youth voices and make schools into spaces that allow young people to grow and thrive.

Break the cycle of miseducation. — King Amin Robinson

Since its inception, the education system has been designed so that the flow of knowledge goes downstream, but never up. Most schools have traditionally been fixated on controlling students, especially Black or Brown students, or generic approaches to education that deny the complexity and uniqueness of each student. When students, especially BIPOC students, are left out of conversations on what schools, classrooms, and curriculum should look like, they don’t have the support they need to develop their own intellectual curiosity or an understanding of their own and others’ cultural histories. Some students might even be made to feel like they don’t belong or aren’t being heard.

The general public celebrates the voices of young people when they speak on issues that impact them, from climate change to gun violence prevention. But why not education? Why is a system that is created for young people so reluctant to listen to them? Underestimating the thoughts and contributions of young people who are actively engaged with school and education is often driven by racism and classism. It does not reflect the values of an equitable learning environment as defined by the BELE Framework.

Listening to young people is just the first step — it’s not enough to rely on student councils or honorary school board positions. When it comes to making students full partners in designing their own learning environments, educators should embrace humility and give youth the actual power to change the system from the inside.

Students cannot be in a classroom, engaged and productive, if they are not heard. — King Kahlil Chatmon

If bringing students to the table to be active partners in designing their learning experience seems difficult or unrealistic, look at the work that organizations like the Kingmakers and the National Equity Project have been doing for years to center youth voices. It’s not a radical idea, but it may be a new one to some.

The success of Kingmakers’ student-centered culture is rooted in an unapologetic commitment to engage, encourage and empower each student. Since its inception, the Kingmakers have been working to support young Black Kings in Oakland as individuals while empowering them to advocate for what they believe in.

A key component of their work is bringing the conversation to students. Even the highly technical language that educators and experts use when talking about systems change or learning environments can be an impediment to getting buy-in from young people. The Kingmakers approach of using hip hop (via a self-produced album) and social media “kickbacks” to start a conversation with young Black Kings about what they care about in their community is effective because it removes artificials barriers to access and change.

When the National Equity Project launched their Midwest Network, they invited a set of student leaders to provide real time feedback and coaching to their members. Having young people literally at the table inspired educators to reflect and continue partnering with students, also pushing them to prioritize youth involvement in the decision making process moving forward. Educators opening themselves up to feedback makes them better able to serve students, and it shows a commitment to creating the equitable learning environment that students need to truly thrive.

Capitalize the “B” in Black and the “K” in Kings. — King Jonathan Piper II

So in this moment, when educators are grappling with how to create safe, nurturing spaces for Black and Brown youth in the midst of a pandemic, where can they start? We asked the Kings, and they gave us some recommendations. In their own words…

  • You can’t teach a broken heart. When you ask us “how are you?,” really mean it, and be prepared to provide the support they need, whether it’s academic, emotional or social.
  • Treat us like an asset, not a liability. Anti-racist spaces come out of celebrating each student’s uniqueness, not using cookie cutter approaches to try and control them.
  • Look outside of the box for curriculum inspiration. Students shouldn’t have to educate themselves on their own culture and history. Find learning materials that teach us to love, accept and have pride in their multiple identities.
  • Involve us in your professional development. Students and teachers should constantly be learning from each other. Partnering with young people to prioritize what teachers should be trained on, whether it’s bias or mental health training, will better equip teachers to support their students.
  • Don’t invalidate our experiences. If you’re serious about creating an anti-racist environment, then start by really listening to us. Interrupting us or trying to talk over us when we’re trying to explain ourselves will only break trust and relationships.

You can learn more about Kingmakers of Oakland at kingmakersofoakland.org. To learn more about how Kingmakers engages its community on social media, you can check out their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The National Equity Project is a leadership and systems change organization committed to increasing the capacity of people to achieve thriving, self-determining, educated, and just communities. Learn more at www.nationalequityproject.org.

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