The Art of Healing: Building meaningful youth-adult partnerships

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Reimagine Education, a project of Portland Empowered (an organization I support alongside youth leaders) began during summer 2020, in response to inequities in our education system.

It seeks to center the experiences and expertise of youth with regard to racism. Reimagine is designed so that young people and adults have the space to meaningfully partner, analyze, and problem-solve the many pressing issues impacting young people. 

This year we focused on several topics: different strategies of change, defining power, what it means to cede power, transparency, accountability, redefining “youth voice,” Black student unions and racial affinity groups, implicit bias, and restorative justice.

In order to do this work, we had to build a foundational knowledge of strategies for change-making. Often when individuals are hoping to make impactful change, there are disagreements about how to get there. So we used “The 4 R’s,” which I’ve mentioned in an earlier column, as a way to frame and reflect on these differences: Reform, resist, recreate, and reimagine new systems. 

Something I learned is that there is a direct correlation between resistance and reimagination. Saying no to something that doesn’t feel right makes the path toward yes that much clearer. This work of consistently reflecting on what works and what doesn’t was a pathway towards reimagining what school could look like if it was truly in support of the needs of BIPOC students. 

Key ideas this year focused on Black student unions and racial affinity groups, dismantling white supremacy and implicit bias, and restorative justice.

Some ideas for Black student unions were to prioritize BSUs and give them space to lead and provide support; having administrators consult with BSUs in addition to student councils, and supporting affinity group structures through recognition, funding, events, and workshops for skills and knowledge building.

With implicit bias, students were calling for training for teachers before starting to teach; incorporating student voices and power in the school hiring processes; diversifying curriculum and teaching with an anti-racist lens; having a place to talk about racist and discriminatory incidents in school, and for staff to simply pronounce students’ names correctly.

With restorative justice, which is an expansive idea, students centered on having staff members acknowledge past/present harm and racist mistakes, and being transparent about the repair work; investing in restorative practices versus punitive disciplinary practices, and having faculty and students educated about restorative justice.

(The all-inclusive list of recommendations this year can be found online.)

Throughout the work of building partnerships, there was a theme of how valuable transparency is to students. We found that consistent transparency builds trust and accountability. Students wanted adults in the public school system to be clear when they say they will incorporate the “student voice.”

Does that mean students have decision-making power? Is their role just to consult? Are teachers/staff actively incorporating student’s ideas, critiques, and input? The value of transparency is meant to ensure students can make informed decisions about the spaces they join, and if it meets their expectations enough to participate.

In order to build a culture of meaningful youth-adult partnerships, a call to action has to be answered. If you are part of the Portland Public Schools, share the work you’re doing in support of students, the action steps, and how students can be involved and not just tokenized; engage in transparent communication by providing consistent updates, and ensure that communication is readily accessible to students; continue collaboration by investing in partnerships with students (this takes time and committed energy); advocate for students in adult spaces, and build out action plans in response to student requests.

Use your knowledge of the system to find avenues for change.

It’s clear that BIPOC students experience harm in the education system as it is, so in order to move toward a better future together, students who have experienced harm need to be part of the effort towards healing. Involving students in the process is necessary. Partnering with students to ensure their needs are being met, being transparent about what steps staff is taking, providing consistent updates that are accessible to students, and being accountable for what staff does commit to are all paths towards more equitable schools.

Muntaha Mohamed is an artist and activist who works for Portland Empowered, volunteers with Black POWER, and sits on the board of Mindbridge.