‘I think that was the first incident in my life where I felt like I had, you know, the power.’ Dawnya Johnson

‘They need to understand that these problems were created through generations of systemic injustice and oppression but that they ultimately hold the keys to unlocking that door.’ Zeke Cohen

In 2008, Zeke Cohen (Teach For America – Baltimore ’08) took a group of 8th grade students to New Orleans to participate in a project rebuilding homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina. As they started work, Zeke started to notice a dramatic change in one student in particular.

Zeke: I had this student who was incredibly tough. He used to get in a lot of trouble at school, used to get put out of school a lot. And in getting to know him better, I found out that there was just a lot of strife in his life, and he’d been through a number of transitions and had experienced some very, very deep trauma. And, as a result, you know, his way of getting attention was to come in and start fights and be angry. As we got to gutting this woman’s home, this young man took over the group. And he’s punching down walls, he’s pulling out nails, he’s punching windows, and is leading this crew of eighth-grade kids, you know, “you go up there, you go do that.” And was just having this is incredible experience. And as a teacher, I really had to step back and think about what it was that allowed for this transformation in this young man. Because, up until this point, I hadn’t seen him smile, let alone tear it up, literally and figuratively.

This student’s transformation in New Orleans inspired Zeke to co-found (with Matt Stern and Yasmene Mumby, TFA – Baltimore ’08) an organisation in Baltimore called The Intersection, which is dedicated to helping low-income students recognise and realise their potential as leaders of social change in their communities and wider society.

Zeke: What I came to is this idea that often when people think about low-income kids, they’re thought of as either part of the problem or as victims. What if we could shift that lens and show that our kids can be the solution?

The first step in the Intersection’s approach to teaching leadership is to develop their students’ contextual awareness.

Zeke: Every time we start working with a new group of kids, I start by showing an image of two different schools. One that is pristine, with this big open learning space that  looks like the kind of place you would want to learn in. The other school has a metal detector at the entrance and the classrooms are all out of sorts, the books are all over the place, they’re outdated. There’s rust everywhere.  And so I ask my students, “So, school number one. Who goes to that school?” And they almost unanimously say, “White kids, rich kids, smart kids.” Who goes to school number two, I ask them. “Black kids, dumb kids, kids who don’t care about their education. They drop out, they end up in prison, they get pregnant.” What you see is that our kids have internalised a sense of worthlessness. When you send someone to school in a broken building, where less than 7% are going to graduate from college, you’re telling them that you’re worthless. I think that in every major institution within our city, our kids are told that they’re worthless.

Zeke believes that a critically conscious contextual awareness is the key to overcoming internalised feelings of inferiority in students.

Without revealing the external and historical injustices that shape their reality, the students perceive the challenges they face as somehow inherent in their identity or in their community.

Zeke: We begin by teaching students about the history of Baltimore and the ways in which it was formed through open segregation, through housing, through schools, through the police. And we challenge our kids to think systematically. Contextualize their own challenges, but also understand the bigger picture of Baltimore and the United States.

We talk openly about racism, class and gender and all the other struggles that they are ultimately going to have to overcome. Because if we don’t talk about that stuff, no one will. And part of how we break down systems of oppression is that we reveal them. They need to understand that these problems were created through generations of systemic injustice and oppression but that they ultimately hold the keys to unlocking that door.

It’s important to not only teach that history to our students, but to teach it to us as educators. Because what sometimes happens is that we come into low-income communities and we have kids who are struggling, we have parents who are struggling. And unless you’re conscious and aware of the history of white supremacy in this country, and specifically in this city, you can’t see it through the right lens. You see it as dysfunction. You see it as communities that have lost their way. And so I think as educators, it’s really important that we check our own implicit and sometimes explicit biases. It’s not that our kids aren’t achieving, it’s that they’re dealing with histories of systemic oppression. We need to understand that, and to understand the trauma that’s been inflicted, not just on our individual kids, but on their communities, so that we don’t go in and assume that, because the student isn’t learning on a high enough level, that it’s their fault. We need to really do our own analyses and identify what’s really going on with our kids.

Once the students have developed a strong contextual awareness, step 2 of the program is to develop the students belief in their own self-efficacy.

Zeke: So, I think that our kids feel an incredible sense of powerlessness, and it’s not always something that they’re able to express or put into their own words. But, you see it when they stop participating in school, you see it when they decide to sell drugs. That’s not about, “I want to rebel, I want to do something bad.” That’s about, “I don’t feel power in my own life.” And our thing at The Intersection is that power is about the ability to act and to do for yourself and for others. Our kids have the power in them. It’s not about us giving it to them, it’s about them finding it for themselves. And when they start to believe that they have self-worth and that they have power, that completely changes their outlook and changes their academics as well. They start succeeding and doing well and getting B’s and then A’s and it’s powerful.

Dawnya is one of the Intersections current students leaders. She’s confident, driven and charismatic but she tells me that before joining the Intersection ‘being powerless was a theme throughout my life’. (We heard from Dawnya on withGanas after she shared her powerful reflections with the network in Mumbai.)

Dawnya: ‘I grew up in Baltimore without my mom and dad, because my mother was addicted to drugs and my father was incarcerated for the first 13 years of my life.’

She endured some very hard times in and out of the failing foster care system until her cousin offered to take care of her.  

Dawnya: He was amazing. The best person I’ve ever met. Nobody could ever top his awesomeness. He worked in the home improvement field and he got laid off because the company needed to downsize. And he started selling drugs and getting involved with gang violence, and just a lot of stuff that wasn’t really good for him. And I remember one of his friends saying, you know, that his luck would run out and it eventually did. He was shot six times in his back and he bled to death not too far from here, a couple of streets down. And that was really hard for me. My grades tumbled down, if you can even call what I was making grades. I lost all the determination that I had and the resistance for all the bad stuff. I was powerless. There was nothing I could do, nobody I could call to stop that situation.

After spending some time living outside of Baltimore she moved back to the city and heard about The Intersection.

Dawnya: So, the first meeting I walk into the room, and I, like, hear the conversation about, you know, the kids in Birmingham that marched for the Civil Rights of the people and, you know, different youth leaders throughout the United States and the Civil Rights movement and throughout the history of the world. And that really inspired me to, you know, be one of those leaders right now.

I always say that unless you can change the constant variable in an equation, then the equation won’t change that much. I have a different constant variable now. I got a new group of friends, who, like me, want to see something change in their community. I began to develop goals and I began to develop a vision for what I would like my life to look like. And a vision for what I would like my community to look like in the future.

My vision is to empower the people who live in my community and in communities like mine so that they can make change for themselves and so that they can fight the forces that would tell them that they’re not good enough or that they’re not strong enough or that they don’t deserve education.

I’ve developed that vision through empathy and through, at some point, feeling like I didn’t have power to change the things that were happening in my community or in my school and my family. Feeling like I didn’t have the power to talk to my legislators or the people who made rules for the people who lived in my community, like I didn’t have power to fix my school, like I didn’t have power to grow and develop myself. And I feel like that’s what where that vision comes from: a place of powerlessness changing into a place of strength.

Last year, I saw Dawnya address a room full of global educators in Mumbai. She reflected back on her relationship with her mother.

Dawnya: I realised that my mother’s actions towards me were not the result of a lack of love, but the result of a lack of power. Not having the power of education. Not having the power of mental health or emotional support. And not having the power of privilege and opportunity.

Through the development of contextual awareness students like Dawnya are able to understand their experiences within the a wider context of external influences. This allows them to challenge their own internalised feelings of inferiority. They realise that they are not responsible for or deserving of the negative things that have happened in their life. These things happened because of systemic injustice. And they have the power to affect change on these systems.

Step 3 at The Intersection is about developing the leadership skills students need to be able to effect change on their reality.

Zeke: The way in which we at the Intersection think about power is we think about who we can connect to whether it’s elected officials, business leaders, people that have influence, people that can make a positive change. We think about, how can we connect to them? And we think about, how can we organize within our own communities, whether that’s fellow students, whether it’s teachers, whether it’s parents. But basically, how we are able to gain power is through organizing and through coming together. So we need to teach our kids how to communicate publicly, how to speak publicly, how to organize their peers, how to interact with business leaders, with politicians, etc.

Dawnya: We learn how to mobilize the people and the resources that we have in order to build the power that we can’t get through money.

So, no matter how much you make or how much your parents make, I think a group of people who come together and advocate and push and fight for a cause or for something to happen–I think that’s power.

In step 4, the students identify critical issues that are impacting their communities that they can influence.

Zeke: We bring together a group of our alumni, we call it our Steering Committee, and we challenge them to come up with the next projects for our students. Their job is to get together and to debate, to analyze, to read, to argue, and to think through: ‘What is it that we could have an impact on in the city of Baltimore?’ And then we give our students the space to go out and actually solve these problems. Our role as educators is to help facilitate, is to use our own influence and connections to introduce our students to people in power, but ultimately we need to step back and let our students lead.

These projects and campaigns are more than a weekend’s commitment or a photo opportunity. For their ‘235 Lives Campaign’ – a campaign to reduce gun violence in Baltimore – the students interviewed more than 450 different people around the city in order to understand the root cause of the problem and identify the right solution.  During their community rejuvenation project – turning abandoned lots into community gardens – the students also registered hundreds of local community members to vote. And in 2012 they knocked on over 7,000 doors in order to pass the Dream Act, a law that would expand educational opportunity for undocumented children in Baltimore.

Zeke: So the undocumented community here in Baltimore is one of the most powerless communities that we have.

And when our students at The Intersection connected with some undocumented students and heard about their struggles, our students felt this incredible impulse to get involved.

Dawnya: Initially I was like, you know, “These people are taking our jobs, they’re just taking all our resources.” You know, all the stereotypes. I didn’t realize they were wrong until I met a Dreamer (a US-based student activist — often having had lived and gone to school in the US for most of his/her life — who does not have American citizenship and is fighting for it, and for others like him/her to gain it). He talked about, you know, losing his mom because she was deported and losing his dad the same way. And he talked about, having the added barrier of language and the added, added barrier of being gay. And just, you know, all of these added barriers that I will never have to face.

Zeke: And so, with the Dreamers, we organized. We spoke in churches, in neighborhoods, in community centers, in recreation centers. Our kids went on TV, they were in the newspapers. And they were able to change the narrative, because the idea before we started participating (from those opposed to the law) was that the Dream Act was going to turn black communities and Hispanic communities against each other.

But our kids said: “No! This is not about them versus us. This is about how can we all move forward together.” And that in order to build enough power to pass the Dream Act, we need to create relationships with the Dreamers, with the Hispanic community, with the Greek community and with the Chinese community, and with all these communities that have essentially been voiceless in our city. They realized that when we’re divided, when we’re fighting amongst each other, we don’t have power . But all of us together: black people, Hispanic people, Asian people, Jewish people, white people, when we come together, that’s how we gain power and that’s how we move our city, our state, and ultimately our country forward.

The Dream Act passed 3 to 1.

Dawnya: I think that was the first incident in my life where I felt like I had, you know, the power. There was finally an instance in my life where I could have the power and I could control the outcome, not only for myself but for somebody else.

This video and article were created by Faolan Jones for Teach For All.

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