It’s a spring evening on the Huston-Tillotson University campus in East Austin, and groups of teenage African-American students attend speaker presentations about a range of topics, from the art of film making to race in America to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Jaynna Sims, a master’s student at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, peeks into the classrooms as she walks down the hallway to make sure everything runs smoothly. Though her main role was to help coordinate the logistics for the event, she’s proud to give all the credit to the students she’s been working with at the Excellence and Advancement Foundation, her social work internship placement.
The students spent the semester organizing The Youth Experience: A Summit For Youth by Youth. They chose what topics they wanted to learn about, and they reached out to speakers and vendors for the summit. Sims says that this development of youth leadership distinguishes the Excellence and Advancement Foundation as an organization combating the school-to-prison pipeline. And, it’s what motivated her to request the foundation as her spring internship.
“They’re one of the few organizations that were focused on youth and the issues around youth that I was interested in,” Sims said. “They also have the potential to focus more on policy and engage the youth around organizing, so that was particularly interesting for me.”
Founded in 2015, the Excellence and Advancement Foundation is dedicated to breaking the school to prison pipeline through scholarship and activism. It has a two-pronged approach: intervention and prevention. During her internship, Sims worked on the prevention side: she coordinated a film screening and discussion panel about community reentry of incarcerated populations, attended community meetings of a youth justice work group, and attended the weekly gatherings of one of the foundation’s programs, the Black Leadership Academy.
In the academy, students learn about Black history and literature and how they relate to current events. Sims said that the academy really allows for students to talk about topics that public schools do not usually address.
“Schools aren’t very culturally responsive to the education of youth of color, so providing opportunities to these children to learn about their culture from people that look like them and that they identify with is powerful,” Sims said. “It’s giving them the opportunity to know their strengths, their power, and their leadership abilities.”
A critical part of the dialogue during these meetings include systemic issues about race, Sims said. She recalled the first meeting she attended, where she was the only white person in the room. Students asked her questions that were on their minds, which she said is a testament to the way the adults of the foundation facilitate discussions from a very open approach.
“It helps the youth know it’s a safe space to be very frank and honest,” Sims said. “They felt comfortable asking questions, so I think that spoke volumes to the safe space that the adults had created there for them.”
She said many of the students come from schools where youth of color get negative messages about themselves, are disproportionately disciplined, or receive “ugly stereotypes.” The foundation offers a space where students’ culture is respected, they are understood, and they are given the benefit of the doubt.
“They’re given what should be this normal treatment from adults that they unfortunately don’t get from the school systems,” Jaynna said. “It doesn’t let these children lose faith in adults, and they get to know that there are adults in this world that care about them and that see them for the good that they are.”
Two students also attended community meetings for the youth justice work group with Sims. After the meetings, those students would always comment that this was the only place they felt heard and listened to.
Halfway through the semester, one of the two students had been placed into a better school situation for his needs — a direct result of the foundation’s advocacy efforts. Sims said that his involvement in the youth justice working group reaffirmed a positive path for this student.
“It’s just been great to see someone who, had he not been part of this organization, could have easily been shoveled down the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “It was special to see this organization have an impact on his life and help find a place that really worked well for him.”
By Lynda Gonzalez. Posted June 18, 2018