By Guest Blogger Julee Brooks, Woodcraft Rangers
(Note: To read my full article, click here.)
To me, publicly-funded afterschool programs work to bridge gaps in an inequitable education system, supplementing with quality programs and building power among young people. Afterschool programs empower youth, nurture young talent, even level the playing field, but despite doing this important work daily, the painful truth is that conditions of schools, neighborhoods, and economies just never change.
Trying to rectify inequities in an inherently inequitable system is a Sisyphean task until there is change in the systems themselves. So, we find ourselves, though well-intended, propping up a system that still doesn’t equitably serve all the people in this country. As agency leaders, we are witness to, and work daily against, the pressures, politics and punishments of this inadequate system. We recognize our own vulnerability in the face of scarcity, and we stand on the thin edge of demanding change while fiercely gripping the ground beneath us.
With municipal budget season upon us, agency leaders must stand in solidarity with racial justice movement leaders and take swift action. The values shift in this moment is palpable and budgets are values. But how? With a coalition of 17 afterschool agencies here in Los Angeles, so far, this is what we have done or have learned. (See below for a full list of agencies.)
TAKE DIRECTION FROM ORGANIZERS
With the swell of public support, change will be the result of decades of the tireless efforts and sophisticated strategies of Black leaders. We are not here to co-opt but to contribute to ensure codified change in policy that will deliver greater investments to historically under resourced communities — in education and housing and healthcare, and with them, a more equitable society. If you aren’t connected to racial justice movement leaders already, read, listen, follow. Find your Black Lives Matter chapter or organizations like LA Voice, Community Coalition and the People’s Budget LA. And Listen.
IDENTIFY YOUR ASSETS
Understand the goals and identify the assets you have to forward them. In our initial BLM solidarity statement to staff, we asked our Woodcraft Rangers team what actions they wanted from the organization. A site coordinator responded:
“I know very recently we were part of an organized coalition of groups advocating for after-school funding…The lack of adequate funding for social programs in under-privileged neighborhoods is exactly the kind of racial injustice these protests are all about. Given our connections within the city, we have a unique opportunity to catalyze meaningful change through a powerful unified demand for justice and reform.”
My work is always defined by those closest to the work, and I respected him calling me in. Afterschool organizations have valuable assets -- strength of parent, youth and staff voices; privileged access to policy makers and funders; data illustrating success – and we must be ready to leverage them. We began with political pressure.
ANSWER THE CALL
The next day, I invited a few colleagues to test their willingness to engage in budget reform and its messiness. Leaders, especially white leaders like myself, need to acknowledge seeking perfection or “handling the politics” is often in service to the system itself, not to those we are charged to serve.
It is budget season in America and the clock is ticking. The next day, I saw a call to action about People’s Budget LA, calling for public comments at the upcoming LA City Council Budget Committee meeting. It gave us a platform, a deadline and a tactic all in one.
HONE YOUR MESSAGE
Using the language of organizers is important. However, the frame is easy for afterschool as BLM advocates for an aligned approach of nurturing communities and advocates are vocal that afterschool programs make communities safer. This includes Defund the Police. Potentially uncomfortable, these words are precise and intentional. Using them shows solidarity, against brutality and for community investment.
BUILD A COALITION
Within 48 hours, 16 organizations had joined mine to sign onto the letter. With collective strength, leaders didn’t fear political fallout individually, but stood together. A couple of organizations declined deeming the letter “too political”. Frankly, this moment requires moral courage, and I am proud to stand with so many exhibiting it.
TURN UP THE VOLUME
The letter made our case, opened the door and framed the conversation in solidarity. While the next steps are unfolding, it is imperative for leaders who hold positional power, especially white leaders, to push hard, with community organizers who have pushed for so long.
We must continue to pressure decision-makers and the public — a full-court press that, as our staff member pointed out so powerfully, we do when our inadequate dollars to support communities are at stake. Why wouldn’t we do it when lives are at stake? This is a moment of reckoning. For our society where Black lives have not mattered, for systems that have not served Black and Brown children, for leaders who have not been willing to risk their own comfort for the liberation of others.
I, for one, am committed to doing the continual soul-searching this moment requires. To evaluating how I am complicit in upholding systems that oppress. To evolving my understanding of what solidarity means. To taking every next action that is required because Black Lives Matter. I firmly believe that until there is racial justice in this country, we cannot deliver on the promises, no matter how well-intended, we make to the youth we serve.
Afterschool leaders, I am calling you in to join me.
Julee Brooks is the CEO of Woodcraft Rangers, that has served Los Angeles youth since 1922 and currently provides afterschool programs to over 15,000 young people annually. She brings 20 years of experience in service to youth in youth development, arts education and human services. She is a Kentucky native and mother of two boys.
List of Supporting Agencies: Woodcraft Rangers, After-School All-Stars Los Angeles, LA’s Best Afterschool Enrichment, Heart of Los Angeles Youth, Los Angeles Education Partnership, The Los Angeles Trust for Children’s Health, TXT: Teens Exploring Technology, arc, Para los Ninos, Inner-City Arts, EduCare Foundation, Boys and Girls Clubs of Carson, GAP:Gang Alternative Program, LACER Afterschool Programs, A World Fit for Kids, KYDS, and Team Prime Time Afterschool Programs.
By Sam Piha
Jessica Tseming Fei, Deepa Sriya Vasudevan and Gretchen Brion-Meisels served as editors of At Our Best: Building Youth-Adult Partnerships in Out-of-School Time Settings. We interviewed them to ask about the forming of youth-adult partnerships in the era of COVID-19, social distancing, and distance learning. Their responses are below. (Note: In a future blog we will hear from them on their new book and more about youth-adult partnerships.)
Q: We know that one of OST’s superpowers is promoting positive adult-youth partnerships. With school closures and social distancing, promoting relationships can be very difficult in the era of distance learning. Can you comment on this?
A: Relationship-building in the era of distance learning can definitely be challenging. When we are physically apart from each other, maintaining a sense of togetherness with others requires intentional and robust efforts. This type of effort is necessary, though, for OST programs to continue playing a key role in young people’s learning and growth. Nurturing our sense of connection to people and places –– that represent community and care –– is essential for our mental health and well-being. Although the work can be daunting, this is an important opportunity for us to explore new ways of being in community and operating as collectives. It does take significant initiative, and perhaps a leap of faith, for adults to bring this sense of possibility in relationships to an online setting. Foror both adults and young people, it can feel strange and surreal to work closely together outside of the shared physical environments of their OST programs, both in continuing relationships and in starting new ones with summer programming.
Yet, with a lot of checking in (individually and with one another) about our experiences and how we can show up for one another, our relationships can become even more responsive and resilient. With creativity and commitment, the principles and practices of relationship-building that anchor our in-person OST settings can be translated into the virtual space. We’re confident that the promotion of relationships can remain a superpower of OST, and become an even more meaningful and purposeful part of our work.
Q: Given the difficulty of developing partnerships between youth and adults when they are interacting remotely, which children are at greatest risk?
A: In some ways, this time mirrors and exacerbates issues of access already happening in programs and schools. Having individual phones, laptops, and reliable internet connection, for example, are critical for continued relationship-building, and there are systemic discrepancies in access when it comes to these utilities.
In this particular time, many children and youth have parents who are essential workers - in healthcare, food, and sanitation. Older youth have had to step up in their caregiving responsibilities to younger siblings and may not feel like they have time to engage in synchronous structured programming or activities. At the same time, they may desire the routines and community that OST spaces provide. As educators, we have to recognize where we fit into the ecosystems of care right now, know that we might play a role in providing essential services, and also honor our roles as social and emotional support providers for our students and their families.
Most young people (and adults!) feel stressed or overwhelmed by the constraints of stay-at-home orders, distancing, and the trauma of lives lost during this pandemic. For youth in particularly vulnerable communities, this can be an even more difficult time, particularly for: youth with parents working outside the home in essential services or who are themselves working to support their families, youth experiencing mental health issues, illness, and physical disabilities, undocumented and mixed status families who have been excluded from government assistance, queer youth who may not be out or safe at home, incarcerated youth or youth in group homes, youth in uncertain home circumstances (e.g. foster care, domestic violence), and youth of color – particularly African-American youth, whose communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and Asian-American youth, many of whom are experiencing increased violence due to anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.
Q: Can you state any strategies that programs are using to maintain and promote relationship building (adult-youth, youth-youth) in the era of COVID-19 restrictions?
A: At Sadie Nash Leadership Project, a community-based youth organization where Jessica serves as Director of Programs, educators have continued to use rituals like opening circles and games to sustain and deepen the interpersonal relationships between youth. Adults and youth engage together with prompts that invite vulnerability and storytelling—grappling together with topics that range from self-care to family life and coping with grief and loss. Group activities--for example, mindfulness activities, feminist fashion shows, and singing games--continue to create a sense of joy and healing that strengthens the bonds between individuals.
In addition, there are many ways to take collective action while socially distanced, and the processes around these actions can further fortify relationships and solidarities between groups. Throughout Sadie Nash programs, educators facilitate project-based work through which young people can enact their own visions, with support from peers and adults.
Recently, Sadie Nash has leveraged youth-adult partnerships to facilitate wellness events for LGBTQQIA+ college students and communities of color, develop awareness campaigns about the impacts of COVID on youth in foster care and on people experiencing domestic violence, and conduct outreach via social media about the Census. The organization has also expanded relationships by doing more parent/family engagement--offering support to whole households through workshops on financial planning, intergenerational game nights, and small grants that provide emergency financial assistance for basic necessities such as food, groceries, and rent. The overarching strategy has been to lean in to the program’s embeddedness in community--staying present in this collective experience, attuned to the differences in vulnerabilities, and rooted in the values that have long guided the organization.
We are encouraged by the flexibility and nimbleness of OST educators in response to this moment, and by the commitment to partnership-oriented relationships with young people that we have seen. At the same time, we recognize that OST educators and community-based organizations are particularly vulnerable right now, often providing significant physical and emotional labor without having the financial security that should accompany this. Keeping this in mind, we hope that funders understand their role in offering financial continuity and stability for programs that foster partnership. We also hope that adult program staff make intentional space for honest conversations, affirmations, and ongoing team building to buoy one another. For adults, supporting and caring for each other more holistically in these uncertain times can model the kinds of positive relationship-building we aspire to with our young people.
Jessica Fei is the Director of Programs for the Sadie Nash Leadership Project. As an educational researcher and practitioner, she seeks to center the voices and leadership of youth, and to build relationships and communities grounded in authentic care.
Deepa Vasudevan is a visiting lecturer in education at Wellesley College, whose research focuses on the occupational identities and expertise of community-based youth workers, constructions of care work in education, and youth engagement in out-of-school learning experiences.
Gretchen Brion-Meisels is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose work draws on critical participatory action research approaches to understand how schools and communities can become more equitable and loving spaces.
By Sam Piha
The recent protests demanding racial equity have resulted in many supportive statements from afterschool intermediaries and providers marking a turning point, hopefully, in our country. We were inspired by the rally and march organized by youth at Oakland Technical High School (which is two blocks from my home). It was very successful and well attended- over 15,000 in attendance (read more here about how they did it). Oakland Tech High School has a strong history of student activism. Students from this high school
“Educators. This is a teachable moment. Don’t be afraid to teach about the meaning of justice and the murder of George Floyd by the police. Our students are watching.” -Pedro Noguera, UCLA
“It is not enough to acknowledge the inequities that exist. Now is the time to direct our collective outrage to create real change.” -Karen Niemi, President & CEO, CASEL
It is important that we educate ourselves and others and serve as allies and lend support to youth to take the lead on this issue. There are many resources being offered by OST organizations. Below are a few resources that may be helpful which were suggested by the California Afterschool Network (CAN).
“The out-of-school time field is one of liberation; it has always been a space fertile for the birthing and development of a future we have yet to behold. A future where the hearts of our children are on fire with possibilities, their minds are filled with images of wonder, their ears are filled with freedom songs and their bodies are FREE. Their bodies are FREE. FREE to live, to grow, to be.”- Isabelle Mussard, JD, Executive Director, CalSAC
By Sam Piha
(This blog was authored prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point the decision to re-open schools in the Fall, and afterschool programs, is not yet clear. Thus, at the end of the blog, we list some suggestions on how youth can be involved in the Fall election digitally.)
The 2020 election offers a number of opportunities to engage older youth and with recent Black Lives Matters escalating efforts, there is no better time for youth to be involved in making a change through the ballot box. We can frame these efforts as “meaningful participation”, “civic engagement”, “youth leadership” or “community service”. There are a number of organizations and initiatives that have designed curriculums, program tools and other materials to assist afterschool providers in their efforts to engage youth in the 2020 election.
Did you know that young people can pre-register to vote at the age of 16-17? I didn’t, until I learned this from some of these materials below. There are a number of ways that youth can be involved in the 2020 election, even if they are not old enough to vote. These include sponsoring a voter registration event, supporting family and friend’s participation, uplifting stories and issues they care about, supporting a candidate’s campaign through volunteering or being part of the election process.
We asked Donny Faaliliu, Director of Leadership and Community Outreach with After-School All-Stars, Los Angeles, how they are planning to engage youth in the 2020 elections. He responded, "After-School All-Stars, Los Angeles plans to engage our high school students through our youth leadership programs. The expectations would be for each school to host informative meetings on campus to educate students to use their voice through the voting process. The Democracy Class curriculum will help us to accomplish this goal. This curriculum is user friendly and the activity plans are easy to follow. It is a great resource for students because it provides valuable information on voter education, registration and the importance of voter turn-out. The webinar trainings were also very helpful and informative on how to best maximize this wonderful resource."
We also learned about how teachers and youth workers can use a video by rapper, Yellopain, entitled, "My Vote Don't Count," which can be viewed by clicking on the image below.
Below are a number of resources that you can check out:
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.