Taking Charge of Our Education
Recently, I’ve started to realize how different my community is from other people’s.
Have you ever noticed how poor communities of color are portrayed in movies and shows? It is always much worse than how affluent, white neighborhoods are represented. The visual contrasts are vast, and the message is clear– poor communities of color are different and don’t deserve the same things. These symbolic messages almost always impact our reality, which creates obvious divide between these communities.
I began to see those differences in Detroit and its surrounding cities when I started paying attention to what had always been right in front of me. The differences were tremendously shocking, and I was disappointed when I realized that they even impacted the quality of Detroit’s schools. Detroit schools and other schools in disenfranchised communities lack so many resources, it is hard to count— everything from the basics like teachers, books, desks, ACs, heaters, all the way to the necessity of clean water. Schools in more affluent districts, however, have the necessities and luxuries, like advanced technology and gourmet lunches, for their students. I knew something had to be done and I wanted to be part of it.
At first, I doubted that I, Elicenda Garza, a sophomore from Western International High School, could really change a system that has never benefited me, or my community. However, I began to realize that if we, as a community, want things done the right way, we have to do them ourselves. Especially as a community of color. I think the first step to getting things done is to be informed 100% about anything that impacts us or our community. All of this hit me when, one day, an organization named 482forward presented at my school. I was being a regular teenager, ignoring what they were saying and playing on my phone until I heard their motto; “nothing about us, without us.”
I’m not sure what it was, but that saying just had power. It made me realize that I shared the mindset of a community organizer and that this organization was something I could become a part of. I had already participated in organizing when I worked with the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC), a group that focuses on the Southwest community of Detroit. Plus, I knew I could ask an adult ally at DHDC about 482forward.
Then it all came together so easily. So that’s exactly what I did. I went and talked to an adult ally about this presentation at my school and how it interested me. His eyes lit up. He explained that he had been looking for a new youth member to join 482Youth and that they had a training coming up which would be perfect for me to attend for my first event.
Ever since then, I’ve been part of 482forward, a community organization that fights for educational justice in Detroit. I absolutely love this organization because they actually care about having a youth voice and fight hard to organize in effective ways. One way 482forward gets things done is by hosting conferences. 482forward has two conferences every year. One in the spring and the other in the fall. Each conference is usually from 9am-3pm, and focuses on a specific topic that affects all schools in the city.
These conferences are set up as large convenings with workshops, and this year we ran 10 different workshops throughout the day. The main point of our conferences is to educate members about the educational landscape of the city, where we currently stand, and what we need to do to reach our goals for the year. During these conferences, we provide the opportunity for our members to learn new organizing skills (leadership skills, communication skills, problem-solving, creativity etc) and the knowledge to help teams in their campaigns.
All of 482forward’s partners attend these conferences to learn and engage with other members. Sometimes 482forward invites policy-makers or government officials. For this year’s spring conference, which was May 18th, the Vice Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, a Detroit Councilman, and the President of both the Detroit Teachers Union and the American Federation of Teachers attended. In the past, representatives, senators and gubernatorial candidates have attended and been held accountable by community members.
We always aim for over 150 attendees but this year’s goal was 200, and we met it! And to top it all off, this spring conference was the first-ever youth-led conference. Youth have been part of the planning process, meaning that they had a say in what’s being discussed, what information needs to be given out and how, how any group activities will run, the necessary amount of time for each task and more. They also facilitated the conference. This means that we hosted and communicated with the guests. And if not already obvious, the conference was entirely youth-centered.
The conferences are always pretty great. There’s always great food provided and a loving atmosphere. The goal of improving Detroit schools should interest us all. We had the chance to show the officials that our education is an important matter! The lack of resources that our schools currently suffer from really does affect students. How can one pass Algebra 2 when they never truly learned Algebra 1 because they had an uncertified teacher? How can one do their work efficiently if it’s 90 degrees and the one working fan is only blowing the hot air around? How can one keep up when the person they’re sharing the book with reads 2 times faster? These are real problems that our students should not have to face. But with our goals of:
- Demanding for students and parents to be included in a participatory budget process with the school district annually
- Electing a student to the school board
- Strengthening our relationship with the school board,
- we plan to change these conditions and be a part of future decision-making processes so there truly is “nothing about us without us.”
The students are the ones who experience these problems first hand, so they should have a say in the decision-making processes that will directly impact them. That’s why this conference —youth-led and youth-centered— mattered. Student voices need to be heard and supported. Youth have been waking up early on weekends, attending late meetings after a long day at school, spreading the word, informing others of the importance of our education, and showing many skeptical adults that we are ready for the challenge. It’s important that we receive support in this year’s spring conference so we can continue to make our voices heard and show this city the power of youth-led action.