Listening for a Change

How the RYSE Youth Center is Centering the Youth Voice to Reimagine School Safety

By The BELE Network

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This will is a part of our ongoing series on organizations that are amplifying the voices of young people who are reimagining schools as inclusive communities and advocating for equitable, anti-racist systems.

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 spoke with Stephanie Thibodeaux Medley, the Director of Education & Justice at the RYSE Center, located in western Contra Costa County in California. Read more about how RYSE is helping students advocate for more equitable schools below.

Across the country, educators have realized the value of bringing youth on board and giving them a seat at the table to shape their educational experience. Now, at the intersection of dueling crises, it is more important than ever to hear from students to accurately assess and meet their needs.

The RYSE Youth Center supporting students in western Contra Costa County, California is a timely example of how institutions can solicit and implement student feedback, even during a pandemic. Beyond this moment, RYSE also serves as a model for how schools and districts nationwide can begin incorporating student voices and perspectives into their day-to-day decision making and curriculum.

During the early 2000s, when Richmond was experiencing high rates of crime, the RYSE Center was born out of a need for safe spaces where youth could engage and have their voices heard. Over a decade later, RYSE supports students in the Richmond school district as well as students all over western Contra Costa County. In 2020, RYSE’s role is just as critical as it was at its founding, but the challenges faced by the community look very different. Gentrification of the Bay Area has pushed more and more families into Richmond, which in turn has displaced many Richmond residents into eastern Contra Costa County where there are considerably less services for youth. This gap in support means less resources for youth and skyrocketing arrest rates for Black and Brown youth.

This inequity led RYSE to convene the district attorney, public defender, and probation department to re-examine how they could disrupt the rapidly growing school-to-prison pipeline in the greater Richmond area. Initially dismissed as anti-law enforcement, RYSE’s advocacy became especially critical in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against racial injustice and police brutality, and the Richmond School Board decided to terminate their contract with local law enforcement for the remainder of this school year.

To emphasize the importance of the student and community voice, RYSE led an interactive and inclusive town hall to reimagine what school safety could look like. This event drew representatives from the Richmond Police Department and School Resource Officers, as well as families, parents, and students who participated in a series of breakout sessions. These sessions surfaced a willingness to try new approaches and invest in relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve. In a group discussing campus security, school resource officers expressed their desire to be trained in adolescent development, and community members raised the idea of making adjustments to the naming and uniforms of campus security to make schools more welcoming and comfortable for students.

This town hall precipitated a series of community events that included speakers like Tia Martinez, an expert in California’s school-to-prison pipeline, to speak to how inequities cause disproportionate harm to Black and Brown youth, and how the community can begin moving towards a system that supports students instead of incarcerating them. In response to youth feedback, RYSE has even begun to pilot listening sessions for adults where they can address the vicarious trauma that they are experiencing and taking out on youth, with more in-depth sessions planned for later this year.

From these conversations, RYSE is aggregating various perspectives and feedback into a recommended plan to move the community forward. They are continuing to convene members of their community to learn about the evolving needs and support needed — particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic — so that schools can create safer and more supportive climates for their students.

Since its opening in 2008, The RYSE Youth Center has been a place where integral parts of the Richmond community come to shed conflict so that they may seek and create solutions. Learn more about their work at RYSEcenter.org

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We are committed to creating learning environments that equitably support every student — especially students of color and low-income students. belenetwork.org

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