Young Voices for Education Equity
by Wendy Fachon
At Young Voices, a Rhode Island organization that provides low-income youth with advocacy skills, students are helped in understanding an issue, thinking strategically, speaking out articulately and persuasively, and assuming roles of leadership. Young Voices has successfully replicated a model that supports students to work with adults in improving their schools. The best practices of this model have been refined and are available for sharing with partners in New England and across the country.
At the school level, the organization has been supporting students to have an authentic voice in the redesign of their high schools. Student leaders survey a majority of their peers at their school and lead focus groups, asking them what should be done to increase graduation and attendance rates. They use this data to create policy recommendations to make their schools more student-centered, and they work closely with school leaders to refine and implement these policies. Concrete results have included new grading policies and an expansion of class options, including a program with hands-on exposure to the biotech industry.
On a district level, Young Voices has guided students in working with the Providence Public School District to revise its Code of Conduct and incorporate restorative justice practices, which support students to stay in school and succeed. The newly-introduced changes address student misbehavior with a focus on reparation rather than punishment. Students are only to be suspended for serious infractions—behavior that poses a threat to the safety of others. Otherwise, students with poor attendance and obedience issues need to be heard, understood and validated, so they can be redirected with compassion, reason and positivity, to work toward their own individual empowerment.
With the new Code of Conduct in place, students want to assure full implementation at the ground level, in schools, on a daily basis. This effort includes informing all students about the standards and protections in the code, so they can stand up for themselves in the case of improper implementation.
At the state level, students testify at legislative hearings before the house committee on Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in the state house. Youth share personal stories to demonstrate failings on the front line, present possible solutions and advocate for change. They are also pushing for common sense gun laws to keep their schools safe.
Young Voices currently serves 200 youth and seven sites across the state, six being high schools. The Board of Directors is comprised of 11 youth and 10 adults. All students commit to the program two to three days per week throughout their high school years. Seniors receive one-on-one college assistance, which includes counseling, SAT prep, guidance through the application process and information on scholarships and financial aid.
Karen Feldman, founder and executive director of Young Voices, speaks about the impact of the organization. “Youth can be extraordinarily effective at bringing about social change when they are trained to develop their leadership skills,” she says. “In the process of healing the world around them, they become empowered in their own lives, able to advocate for the resources they need to reach their own individual dreams and aspirations.” Feldman encourages students and adults interested in getting involved with supporting this work and this model to contact her at [email protected].
Wendy Fachon is the creator of Storywalking.com, a regular contributor for Natural Awakenings and helps deliver youth enrichment curriculum for The Empowerment Factory.
“In the process of healing the world around them, they become empowered in their own lives, able to advocate for the resources they need to reach their own individual dreams and aspirations.”