By age 12, Delashay Lawrence seemed primed to become a statistic. Her mother was frequently absent. Lawrence and her siblings were raised in poverty in Tulsa by a father who struggled with alcohol. Both of her parents had dropped out of high school. Oklahoma has some of the nation's highest teen pregnancy and incarceration rates for women. To Lawrence, those outcomes felt like the path of least resistance.
That year, Lawrence attended the Girls’ Teen Summit sponsored by Soaring Eagles Youth and Family Services. SEYFS is a nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycle of intergenerational family trauma and empowering students and families to pursue choice-filled lives. The two-day conference offered workshops in mental health, college and career readiness and financial planning. The girls also bonded through “electives” such as dance, fashion design, cooking, and basketball.
For Lawrence, the compassionate adult guidance and the camaraderie she found among her peers was transformative. Over the next four years, she and her father received support through a range of Soaring Eagles’ youth and parent programs. SEYFS founder Premadonna Braddick personally mentored Lawrence. Lawrence joined the organization’s weekly Real Life, Real Talk group, which cultivates positive relationships, character development and academic skills.
At 16, with Braddick’s encouragement, Lawrence applied to a summer program at Harvard University. “She met students from China, the Middle East and Africa. It changed the trajectory of her life,” Braddick says. Lawrence went on to win a full academic scholarship to the University of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where she is now a junior majoring in international business.
“I saw so much potential in Delashay. But she told me she was ‘a ticking time bomb.’ She thought she would end up in jail,” recalls Braddick. “I couldn’t let that become her story.”
Braddick’s own story is the driving force behind Soaring Eagles’ mission. “Both of my parents were drug addicts,” says Braddick, who grew up in east Oakland, California. “There was intergenerational trauma.” Placed in foster care at age two, Braddick bounced between homes, enduring sexual, physical and verbal abuse. She had a severe speech impediment and didn’t learn to read until she was 11.
When she aged out of foster care at 18, she began taking classes at San Jose University but felt alone and deeply depressed. Braddick credits her pastor and mentor, Dr. Vanessa Weatherspoon, with pulling her out of “the darkest, most broken place in my life. She held my hand. I needed to know what a healed person looks like—that everybody’s not out to get you.”
Braddick later moved to Tulsa to pursue a double master’s degree in marriage and family counseling at Oral Roberts University. She founded Soaring Eagles in 2013 to offer Tulsa teens the same life-changing care and guidance she had received from her mentor. The organization hosts two annual youth conferences.
The Girls’ Teen Summit and Rise Up Young Men run weekly social-emotional learning groups for middle and high schoolers across the state. (This summer, Braddick plans to expand the Dreaming with Your Eyes Wide Open: Girls’ Teen Summit to Birmingham, Alabama and East Oakland, California, where she was raised.) “The greatest impact of Soaring Eagles is that we consistently show up,” she says.
Soaring Eagles also offers financial literacy classes and mental health counseling for caregivers and families, and the organization provides mentorship to young adults in need of college, job or life skills assistance. Over the last decade, Soaring Eagles has served more than 2,000 students and families across Oklahoma.
Soaring Eagles relies on about 20 volunteers to run its programs. It also counts myriad community groups and schools as vital partners, including Tulsa Public Schools, New Life Interventions Counseling and Coaching Services, and the Tulsa Dream Center, a faith-based community center that hosts the annual summits. “Our community partners help us expand our reach, with counseling, coaching and mentorship to youth and families,” Braddick says.
The key to Soaring Eagles community impact is their sustained, wraparound approach. “On average, we work with our families for around three years,” Braddick says. “When you work with the whole family, there’s a greater chance of bringing healing. We want to help them cope and heal from intergenerational trauma and poverty so they have a better chance at becoming a healthy, successful family unit.”
Like most middle schoolers, San Diego native Zachary Patterson and his friends grumbled about bad school lunches and the lack of diverse books. Then Patterson had a conflict with his teacher. He went to the school counselor, who dismissed the complaint without discussion. The counselor’s casual indifference sparked something in Patterson. Why weren’t adults taking student priorities seriously?
“We’re in a system where students are the primary stakeholders. But we have no ability to change things for the better,” Patterson recalled thinking. “In any other industry, when consumers aren't happy, the product can’t succeed. But in education, we have students speaking up and nothing changes. Something’s not right.”
Patterson believed students should have input on the decisions being made on their behalf. He asked San Diego Unified School District, which serves 120,000 students, to create a student advisory board. He also proposed adding a student representative to the SDUSD school board. After three years of persistent advocacy, both proposals were approved. Patterson ran for the new seat. In 2019, as a high school sophomore, he became the first student elected to the San Diego Board of Education.
However, it wasn’t long before Patterson realized that having a seat at the table wasn’t the same as having a voice. “I was underestimated and shrugged off. They didn’t see me as an equal,” Patterson says. “Before I could advocate for anything, I had to be accepted as a member of the school board.”
While there was no shortage of professional organizations for adult educators, Patterson realized students lacked that same support. In the summer of 2020, he founded the California Student Board Member Association. The student-led network provides connections and training for student board members across the state. CSBMA coaches members on budgeting, governance procedures, and how to build relationships with adults. Delegates determine a statewide policy agenda at their annual conference. They've passed bills to expand student board seats to charter school governing boards and county boards of education.
Last year, CSBMA joined with student board member associations in Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington to launch the National Student Board Member Association. NSBMA now has a network of 250 student board members across 30 states. It collectively represents more than 18 million students across the country. (NSBMA’s fiscal sponsor, the National Center on Education & the Economy, advises the group on scaling operations, management and finances.
“Students serving on school boards are the only governmental role in the United States for youth under the age of 18,” says Patterson. He is now a freshman at Duke University and continues to serve as president of NSBMA’s board of directors. “We have a unique position to advocate on behalf of students in setting the national education agenda.”
Thanks to NSBMA, local policy wins are translating into victories across state lines. In 2019, Oregan student board member Hailey Hardcastle grew concerned about rising youth depression and suicide rates. She spearheaded efforts to pass a bill approving excused absences for students experiencing mental health issues. Student board members in Maryland and California followed suit. They won similar resolutions in their state legislatures. As a result, in less than two years, 7,040,000 students across three states now have access to excused mental health days.
“I'm really proud of that,” Patterson says. “Students serving on school boards have a unique ability to influence policy. Not only are they sitting in classrooms every day, but they have policy authority and can influence the legislative process. Students need to be a part of the conversation and set their own educational path. When we come together as one voice, fighting for educational equity, we can really change the conversation.”
And the conversation has changed the students, too. A recent lost campaign to lower the voting age in California to 17 taught Patterson about perseverance. His own parents voted against the measure.
“Progress can be incremental,” Patterson says. “For any group that has fought for the advancement of rights, it takes time. Unjust systems don’t change with the snap of a finger. They change with advocacy and strategy. Whether it's climate activism or gun violence prevention, it requires working together and understanding where other people are coming from.”
Raised in Atlanta by a single mother, Anashay Wright was taught that the only limits in life were those you choose to accept. “My mother always told me to question policies and practices that dehumanize people,” Wright says. “I grew up in Title I low-income schools, but I was rich in identity. It wasn’t a barrier to being able to engage.”
When her mother fell ill with cancer, Wright learned the power of her community. Her church and school circles wrapped their arms around her in support. Wright graduated from Dekalb County public schools and enrolled at Georgia Southern University. A year later, her mother passed away, and Wright “turned her pain into power.” She wrote the charter for the school’s first co-ed multiracial creative arts and dance community, earning her the Ella Baker Award for leadership. Her team went on to perform on stage with Gloria Estefan and Celine Dion at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
“That was the start of my passion for wanting to disrupt the connection gap across race and class and to partner with businesses and organizations to build the society we’ve been waiting on,” Wright says. “I grew up knowing my power. I grew up being connected beyond my income status. And I always wondered—what would happen if we led with the promise of Black people instead of the problems?”
After nearly two decades working with districts and nonprofits, coaching and serving in senior leadership roles at TNTP and Leading Educators, Wright decided she wanted to create programs for students of color that focused less on their deficits and more on fostering their strengths. In 2019, she started Disruptive Partners, a hybrid education consulting and innovation firm with both for-profit and nonprofit arms. Disruptive Partners’ nonprofit work focuses on equipping Black students with skills and networks to give them access to better opportunities.
“I tell my kids, ‘We learn to lead from the inside out,’” Wright says. “I call it ‘soul work.’ Disrupting self-limiting beliefs. Disrupting anything that doesn’t speak to your brilliance.”
Through programs like the FutureCEO Leadership Accelerator, which was piloted with students from five metro Atlanta school districts, Disruptive Partners hopes to cultivate a pipeline of high-impact leaders within Black communities. “In America right now, approximately seven percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, Asian, or Latino,” she says. “There’s a critical need for more pathways to success.”
Designed for tenth graders and above, FutureCEO Leadership Accelerator guides student fellows through an eight-week “journey” that begins with taking a leadership assessment to identify their core skills and strengths. Students then set a vision for their CEO pathway and learn how to pitch ideas, prepare for job interviews, maintain a positive mindset, and plan their career pathway. “CEO stands for career, education, or ownership—and that can be owning a business or being an organizational leader,” Wright explains.
The program is modeled on the executive coaching work Wright had previously done with superintendents and nonprofit leaders. She says the program opens students’ eyes to new horizons. “I treat them like executives,” she says. “We rent spaces that feel good. They have the top facilitators and they meet a real CEO or president of a corporation. It’s energizing and inspiring, so they want to work harder in school.”
Students leave the program with a CEO blueprint that articulates their vision statement and a clear plan for how to achieve their aspirations. Wright says parents are often surprised to hear their children’s goals for themselves. One young man, an aspiring musician, wants to diversify the field of music composers and use the arts to advocate for social justice.
“You can only imagine what happens when a kid can clearly articulate what they want for their life,” Wright says proudly. “It dispels the myths about what kids can’t do.”
The organization also takes parents through their own version of the accelerator. “Their CEO pathway is as chief education officers for their kids,” Wright says. “It’s part of our theory of change—the idea that parents can learn how to advocate in concrete, powerful ways.”
The pilot has proven successful with students and families. According to Disruptive Partners’ survey data, 100% of student participants left the program able to articulate their top five leadership traits, and 95% wanted to stay connected with the program. Three-quarters of parents said they felt equipped to advocate for their child’s vision of success using the CEO blueprint.
Many parents have since asked for additional courses. Wright says 100% of participants say there is a misalignment between how local school districts are preparing students for graduation and what students feel they need to be ready for post-graduate life.
Wright says the accelerator model is flexible enough to work in a variety of settings. Disruptive Partners is now piloting a similar program designed for parents and families. Since launching Future CEO Leadership Accelerator, Wright joined the board of the National Parent Union and has advocated for the program’s expansion at the White House.
“Kids have big dreams, but the K-12 system is struggling just to get kids to read. There’s this missed opportunity for students who are ready to level up,” Wright says. “We leverage leadership as an accelerator to upward mobility. It’s a booster shot for learning. We’re helping parents get connected to their kids, and kids get connected to their own dreams.”
Less than 20 miles north of Austin, the city of Round Rock in central Texas is home to growing industries like clean energy and tech development. Computer giant Dell is headquartered in Round Rock. Known for its strong academic record, Round Rock Independent School District (RRISD) has become a sought-after suburban school system.
Yet over the years, Black parents began to question if RRISD was living up to its promise for their children. They noticed disparities in academic outcomes for Black students. Many families felt complaints of racism and harassment had gone ignored by school administrators.
In 2015, a school resource officer at Round Rock High School was accused of choking and pushing a 14-year-old Black student to the ground. The incident rocked the Black community. Parents organized and marched on district offices to demand answers. The conflict made national headlines. But a short time later, the officer was cleared and reinstated on the same campus. “It was a traumatic time because there seemed to be no justice,” says Tiffanie Harrison, who was a teacher at Round Rock High at the time.
Still, the incident galvanized parents who began to share their experiences within the school system. “We began digging into the data and saw that, while our district touted a wonderful education for all students, that wasn’t the reality,” Harrison says. “Black students weren’t doing as well as white or Asian students. They didn't have access to advanced coursework. We saw a huge drop off in literacy and numeracy by third grade. It was a systemic issue.” Another big problem: Disproportionately high discipline numbers for Black students across the district.
Upset parents weren’t sure how to voice their concerns. Of RRISD’s 50,000 students, fewer than 9% are Black. “We are scattered across a 110-square-mile school district,” Harrison says. “Families were having similar experiences, but there wasn't enough connection to share what was going on.”
Harrison and a group of parents founded Round Rock Black Parents Association to advocate for Black students, families and educators. RRBPA focuses on ensuring that students of color are represented in district decision-making and that Black children have access to an equitable and inclusive education.
Their work includes preparing parents to advocate for their students at the classroom, campus and district levels. RRBPA offers leadership training and encourages parents to take on positions of influence on their local PTAs, school boards and district commissions. “Our goal is to get Black parents into places of leadership so that they can impact change for their children,” says Harrison, who was recently re-elected to a second term on the Round Rock school board.
In recent years, RRBPA has notched significant wins. The group successfully lobbied the school district for $2 million to create an Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. It focuses on reinforcing culturally-responsive instruction and materials as well as data-driven educator efficacy.
Harrison says RRBPA is continually looking for ways to expand access and opportunities for students of color. Educators linked with RRBPA helped found Black Student Unions across the district. The groups work together closely to advocate for student needs. “BSU students name what they want from their education, and Round Rock Black Parents provides institutional power and accountability for their needs at board meetings and from district and campus-level staff,” Harrison says. Their partnership has yielded field trips, award banquets and the first college fair in central Texas for historically Black colleges and universities.
RRBPA works closely with a range of local community partners and national organizations. They include the Austin-area Urban League, Excellence and Advancement Foundation and Save Your VI. “There's no way one Black grassroots organization will have the capacity to do all the work that's necessary to save Black children,” Harrison says. “But through our partnerships, we've been able to make a much larger impact.”
They also work with other local groups fighting for educational justice. RRBPA co-sponsors joint events for Asian Americans for Justice and the Black Student Unions. It has also backed AAFJ’s efforts to pilot an Asian-American studies curriculum in the district. “Building relationships allows us to empathize at a human level,” Harrison says. ”
Harrison says that RRBPA is about building and uplifting the community through joy. The association has hosted “Black joy cookouts” and a battle of the bands. “It can’t be all fight all the time,” she says. “We realized that we were constantly in opposition with our district. That was exhausting. So, we took another strategy of offering partnership. In communities, we go farther together than alone.”
Last year, in honor of Black History Month, RRBPA created a series of videos of local Black heroes. It featured the police chief, politicians and longtime community members reading aloud Black history. “We partnered with our school district to have these videos shown every day in February, and it became a part of the elementary curriculum.”
The series was so popular, middle school teachers asked to show them. “It was 30,000 students having access to culturally-relevant learning materials,” Harrison says. “It represented the diversity and the beauty of our community and it benefited all students because Black history is U.S. history.”
Harrison says the true goal is ensuring that Black children see themselves reflected in the very fabric of their school community. “Once you develop something like this, you can't uproot it,” Harrison says. “We're redefining success for ourselves. We believe that Black students being able to show up in their full humanity is success.”
In fall of 2018, Denver Public Schools began setting its budget priorities. A group of DPS students met to formulate their demands. The “issues assembly” was hosted by Our Turn, a national nonprofit dedicated to elevating student activism. Ultimately, they identified school-based mental health services as the most pressing need. They believed the lack of supports contributed to the state’s high rates of student suicide, truancy and poor education outcomes.
With Our Turn's guidance, students delivered a petition with 800 signatures to the DPS board. They testified at school board meetings and activated more than 1,500 students across the state. Eventually, they overcame strong resistance from the school board.
In 2021, the board approved a $1.5 million pilot program to staff two full-time mental health counselors in every DPS school. “Our campaign was truly a student-led solution,” says Molly O’Connor, Our Turn’s senior manager of political strategy in Denver. To continue this momentum, they created the Colorado Student Agenda, highlighting a range of district priorities based on student demands. Students asked for more protections for marginalized students and better career pathways for graduating seniors.
Our Turn launched in 2009 as a student advocacy group at Princeton University. It has grown into a national nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the voices of Black, Indigenous, students of color and their allies in education equity. The organization works primarily in Atlanta, Charlotte, Denver and Los Angeles. Our Turn provides support and resources from inception to execution of local campaigns.
“Students are directly impacted by decisions that are being made without them,” says Makayla Richards, Our Turn Atlanta’s manager of organizing. “Students are the ones who have to sit down and take a test to meet a state metric or empty their pockets to walk through a metal detector. They deserve to have a say in their education."
Our Turn student activists have won changes across a wide scope of policy issues. They range from high school credit recovery in North Carolina to fighting for educational data transparency in Los Angeles. In 2020, Minnesota Public Schools students succeeded in dissolving their district's contract with the city police department. That led to the removal of security officers from school hallways. In 2021, Our Turn trained over 150 young people via its online leadership development boot camp.
Tracy Pang, Our Turn’s manager of development, says they are committed to following students' lead. “All of our issue campaigns are directed by student demands and student solutions,” she says.
Pang says Our Turn helps students gain access to the rooms where decisions get made. “Out of the 500 largest public school districts in the country, only 14% include students on their governing boards,” she says. “That shows the misalignment between education policy and the experience of students.”
“Our Turn makes the decision to not only listen to students but implement their thoughts,” Jaylen Adams, one of the Our Turn Executive Fellows, says. “There hasn’t been a concern I had that wasn’t met with open ears and hearts … and then turned into an action plan.”
Last year in Atlanta, Our Turn helped student activists launch the School Board Watch Fellowship. The leadership program intends to bring more transparency and student voice into the board’s decision-making process. However, earning the respect of the adults in power is an ongoing challenge. The last cohort of fellows did not attend a single meeting in person due to scheduling conflicts. Despite board guardrails around stakeholder and community engagement, board leaders are not accessible.
"Without access, we don’t have a chance at equity,” Richards says. “There are people who love young people but still don’t trust in their vision or believe in their voice.”
At the national level, in response to growing censorship in schools, Our Turn students launched the Truth(Ed) campaign to advocate for culturally relevant curricula. Activists wrote a student pledge and created an advocacy toolkit. They also held a virtual Truth(Ed) Summit attended by 200 students across 35 states.
“We've connected many students with our partner organizations and built strong connections around shared goals,” Pang says. Students have provided state testimony in Texas and Georgia. The organization is also brokering meetings between students, superintendents and school boards.
Igniting activism means “providing spaces where students can turn the dial a little in their own lives,” says Richards. “Even if they can't change it all, they can change the tune. It’s not about giving them power. It's reminding them that they have it to begin with.”
Software engineering entrepreneur Ronnie King had been actively involved in his community ever since moving to Jacksonville, Florida, in 2006. King was impressed by the strong presence of community organizations serving students and families. But over time, he noticed a troubling dichotomy.
“I realized that you have two different nonprofit worlds,” King says. “You have Black-led grassroots organizations that are doing almost all their work using volunteers and on very small budgets. And then you have organizations with multi-million dollar budgets, but when you look at their boards, they don’t always reflect the community.”
King observed that many of these better-resourced groups tended to fade away when the grant money ran out. The funding was wasted, their impact fleeting. The most durable programs were run by grassroots organizations with annual budgets of less than $20,000. Fueled by the passion of volunteers, some groups had served the Jacksonville community for generations. “They have run sustainable programming for our kids for the longest time,” King says. “Imagine if we gave them some funding.”
To King, the answer was obvious. Philanthropy needed to recognize the profound value and potential of grassroots community groups. “These core organizations that are giving back the most are not driven by funding,” King says. “They’re just doing what they’re passionate about. If we can find a way to capture that passion and do good work, that’s the ultimate definition of sustainability.”
In 2013, King founded MyVillage Project. The nonprofit collective of Black-led grassroots organizations is dedicated to maximizing educational resources for students. MVP sources funding and awards subgrants to its network of 85 member organizations and entrepreneurs. It designs programming with and for families of color. Last year MVP distributed more than $250,000 in subgrants.
“To address issues in the Black community, these organizations should be leading from the front,” King says. “Honestly, the nonprofit sector has tried a lot of different programs and strategies, and we haven't seen the kind of turnaround we want. The one thing we have not tried is empowering Black-led organizations to lead the change in their own communities.”
King believes the key is creating ways for community organizations to break out of their siloes and come together. “Too often, everybody has their agenda,” he says. “We get so stuck in that, we can’t find room to collaborate. It’s really about finding common alignment.”
MVP’s coalition has partnered on projects related to workforce development, reading support and parent involvement. King emphasizes that programs are deliberately designed to ensure all groups have a chance to contribute.
One such program is MVP’s Project Daily, an ongoing initiative launched in 2021 to address truancy at five Jacksonville schools. A team of organizational and community leaders in MVP’s network came up with a plan to motivate kids to come to school by celebrating attendance and academic achievement benchmarks with tangible rewards. Those include gift boxes with toys, school supplies and gift cards. This year, the project expanded to include gift cards for families.
Ninety percent of MVP’s member organizations committed to making two school visits. They also volunteer time to mentor students and assemble and distribute gift boxes. Participating schools saw a 6% increase in attendance. King says the “downstream benefits” were equally as important.
Another advantage of operating with an “it takes a village” mindset is that collaboration generates its own momentum, King says. When MVP groups were welcomed into schools, community leaders gained a direct line of sight into what students and educators needed most. As a result, MVP member organizations have spearheaded a range of enrichment opportunities within participating schools. They include creating classroom libraries, sponsoring swim lessons, running early literacy workshops for parents, launching tutoring programs for young readers, hosting a youth development camp for boys, organizing college visits. They even organized a holiday stage production.
“Even above funding, we believe the biggest asset is people,” King says. “No matter how strong your one program is, we need each other to really make this thing work. We're all in this together.”
King says there’s no substitute for just getting folks rowing in the same direction. “If we want to try something out, we make decisions fast and get people working together,” he says. “We can do a lot of meetings and theorizing, but if we can actually get together and work on things, that builds trust in the partnership. Bringing community together is hard work, but we can’t do it without them.”
Anika Manzoor was 12 when she first began calling herself an activist. In 2004, she attended a community event to raise awareness of the girls’ education crisis in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. At the meeting’s end, the presenter asked Manzoor and her friends “if we wanted to be the architects of a movement to fight this injustice,” she recalls. “It was the first time an adult in my life saw something in me—saw power in me. She talked to us as if we were her equals. That’s what made me say, ‘Yes, okay. I’m in.’”
That same year, Manzoor cofounded
Over the last 18 years, YAP has trained and mentored more than 3,000 teen activists nationwide. In turn, those students have launched nonprofits and campaigns in their own communities. They have returned policy wins on issues such as improving school nutrition, removing police officers from schools and boosting state funding for school-based mental health services. Seventy percent of YAP members identify as BIPOC. Ninety-five percent come from marginalized backgrounds.
Young activists can register new campaigns or join existing youth-led efforts on YAP’s online platform. The organization employs three full-time staff members. It offers virtual trainings on recruiting, organizing strategy, public speaking and lobbying, and helps burgeoning young civic leaders share their stories and apply for funding. YAP also connects its members to a national network of youth-led and youth-serving organizations and services that support and amplify their advocacy campaigns.
“We see our role as sparking—getting students past that activation threshold, training them in the skills they need and then connecting them with local and national partners,” says Manzoor. “We are conveners and connectors.”
In 2020, 15-year-old Sumiya Rahaman wanted to push for changes in her school community in Carroll County, Maryland, but didn’t know how to start. Rahaman completed a series of YAP trainings on how to activate and organize her fellow students around issues they identified as important.
Manzoor also mentored her one-on-one about building effective relationships with school leaders, elected officials and community allies. And Rahaman says she drew encouragement and inspiration from connecting with YAP’s network of teen leaders: “I enjoyed being in a space with other activists who made me feel like ‘we’re in this together’ whenever I faced roadblocks or challenges with my work.”
Rahaman later founded Carroll County Kids for Equity (CCKE), a youth-led group that advocates for educational equity and greater inclusion for students of color and LGBTQ students. CCKE surveyed 300 students across Carroll County to identify and elevate issues within the school system. These include increasing student mental health services, providing stronger protections for LGBTQ students, shifting school discipline toward restorative practices and prioritizing diversity and representation in the curriculum. With coaching from YAP, the group forged alliances with the county’s NAACP, a local church and PFLAG, a national organization that supports LGBTQ families.
In partnership with Search for Common Ground, an international organization that promotes cooperative conflict resolution, YAP helped coach CCKE members on how to speak to those with opposing views and find areas of agreement. Rahaman presented the survey results at the district’s equity & inclusion conference and met with school leaders and administrators to voice student concerns.
When the school board was considering a ban on students wearing clothing or items bearing “political” messages—a response to LGBTQ pride pins being worn at school—CCKE responded. “The students put up a really good fight,” Manzoor says. “Even though the ban passed, they testified at school board meetings and were able to mobilize 800 community members. They're still fighting on this issue. I count stories like this as a success because we’re not just focusing on the policy outcome—we’re focusing on how the community has been organized.”
We want to identify what really inspires young people and then teach them how to generate a sense of urgency and collective action.
At its core, YAP trusts the vision and leadership of young people. “We follow their lead,” Manzoor says. “We want to identify what really inspires young people and then teach them how to generate a sense of urgency and collective action. And by extension, we're trying to solve all these other issues that plague the world.”
YAP mainly serves Maryland and surrounding areas. Via its virtual programming, it has worked with youth across the country in 44 states. Manzoor believes that elevating student voices and investing in youth advocacy is critical to fostering a new generation of civic leaders to tackle the most pressing issues of the future.
“Young people can be leaders right now,” she says. “And if we set them up during this transformative period of growth and development, they’re going to become adults who can change the world.”
In 2017, a group of 30 KIPP NJ and North Star Academy charter school parents traveled from Newark to Trenton, New Jersey, to testify before the state school board in favor of a measure to ease teacher certification requirements. The group, led by KIPP NJ board member and parent Altorice Frazier, wanted greater access to talented teaching candidates who might share the race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background of their children.
But Frazier and his cohort were unprepared for the resistance they faced.
The measure’s opponents portrayed the parents as political pawns being used to promote charter expansion in the state. Frazier was stunned by the charge.
“That's what made me start thinking: If we're going to come to these events, we have to be much more civically aware,” he says. “We have to move because we want to move. Yes, we can be in step with [charter school leaders], but it cannot be the narrative that Black, Brown and poor parents are just being told what to do. We can do it as partners, but we can no longer do it as customers and clients.”
Frazier, a father of five, was deeply involved with student mentoring and parent engagement through leadership roles at his kids’ schools. He also trained as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, and—not long after the contentious school board meeting in Trenton—Frazier founded
Many of the parents Frazier spoke with expressed frustration about the transactional nature of their relationship with schools. Too often parents were mobilized for specific issues and then felt ignored once the campaigns were over. Frazier believed that many institutions took a top-down – and short-sighted – approach with parents. “That’s not the seed of building community,” he says. “We want to avoid check-the-box initiatives. We want to come into things with intention and with a coalition, collaboration and community.”
PEPNJ is rooted in the concept of “beloved communities.” It centers its work in building authentic, ongoing relationships with parents and community allies across New Jersey. Frazier and his team connect with parents in one-on-one meetings and listening sessions. They also build bonds through local community events such as jazz nights, comedy shows, stage plays and “sip and paint” socials. They hold weekly statewide check-ins on social media to educate parents on community issues and host workshops related to PEPNJ’s four areas of focus: education, economic mobility, social justice and health. Recently, PEPNJ invited The Community Food Bank of NJ’s SNAP-Ed Program to present a series of sessions on good nutrition, reading labels and making healthy eating choices. The nonprofit also offers workshops on advocacy, organizing and leadership skills to parent leaders across the state.
PEPNJ has built trust through direct support to communities in need. Since 2017 and throughout the pandemic, the statewide Unity in the Community coalition distributed backpacks, school supplies, early childhood learning kits and new winter coats to 10,000 struggling families across New Jersey.
The coalition includes PEPNJ and a broad array of community organizations, schools, local churches, government agencies and allies in the private sector. Coalition volunteers met with parents at these events and listened to their concerns and demands. Today, PEPNJ maintains a database of more than 3,000 parents with nine chapters across the state. Frazier says the network can be activated around a common cause.
In 2019, the Paterson School Board announced it would consider a moratorium on new charter schools in the district, to the dismay of many parents who “believed we needed more quality seats in the charter space,” Frazier says. The parents decided they wanted to speak up. Working through their network, PEPNJ organized a coalition of 50 parents as well as charter leaders from all five Paterson charter schools. The group met with elected officials and held a rally calling for a meeting with the school board. At the meeting, PEPNJ parents testified with support from a large contingent of allies. Ultimately, the school board voted down the moratorium—and PEPNJ has been able to continue strengthening relationships with the board and school district officials on other issues.
Frazier says victory was possible because strong relationships and trust already existed when the time came to work together. “It can’t just be about scare tactics and fighting,” he says. “You don’t want to have to rebuild every time because you haven’t engaged these communities for real. If we engage together, we will fight together. I want to be organizing and building each other up collectively, so that when there is a fight, when there is a call—oh, family is coming just because.”
Our voice matters, and we want to be heard.
Frazier says the group now has a deep bench of parent advocates willing to lend their voices to community causes. “It’s about cascading leadership,” he says. “These parents are leaders in their own right. It’s not about me getting 100 parents to come. It’s about me engaging with 10 strong parents, and each of them calling on 10 more strong parents in their communities. And there lies our 100.”
PEPNJ invests in the same consistent engagement strategy to cultivate community partners across the civic, public and private sectors, from schools to nonprofit organizations to elected officials.
“Through PEPNJ, parents learn they have the power to improve their lives,” Frazier says. “There is now a body of parents and community leaders who are watching and listening. Our voice matters, and we want to be heard.”
After serving as a Teach For America corps member in rural North Carolina, Vichi Jagannathan moved to Silicon Valley to work on scalable, tech-based solutions to educational disparities. She met up often to discuss ideas with Seth Saeugling, a fellow TFA alum who at the time worked for the Tipping Point Foundation’s T-Lab, a social innovation incubator in the Bay Area. Both were impressed by the immense resources and creativity being deployed to urban areas, but over time, they came to the same dispiriting realization: Rural students, like those they taught in North Carolina, simply weren’t part of the conversation.
What would be possible, they thought, if the dedicated, resilient leaders they knew in North Carolina could connect with the best practices and resources so abundant in the Bay Area?
“We often assume information flows from urban to rural, from wealthy to less wealthy,” Jagannathan says. “But what if we reversed that pattern? Those insights might be totally different. And they might scale even better to the problems that everybody is facing.”
In 2017, Jagannathan and Saeugling moved back to Edgecombe County, North Carolina. They founded the
“Having taught here, we knew there was a ton of knowledge, wisdom and insight in these communities—so much untapped potential,” Jagannathan says. “It wasn’t at all about ‘There’s a deficit. How do we fix it?’ It was more, what a tremendous opportunity to learn and support the folks who are already here doing the work and to improve their impact.”
After raising initial funds, ROI conducted design interviews with a broad swath of community stakeholders to identify pressing needs. They created a systems map to determine the most effective levers for impact. Over and over, they heard that traumatic events experienced or witnessed during childhood—abuse, food insecurity, addiction, having an incarcerated parent—profoundly affected children’s capacity to learn and thrive. Across generations, the ripple effects on the community were incalculable.
Success would be a world where our community has the resources and tools to self-determine their future.
Together with input from their stakeholders, ROI developed a three-pronged strategy: educate community members about adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and the effects of toxic stress; teach restorative techniques for responding to trauma; and empower those who have been healed to become healers to others. Committed to making sure community members were the ones driving the change, ROI found a local partner with the expertise to help lead the effort. In close partnership with Asheville, North Carolina-based Resources for Resilience, ROI has provided free trainings on trauma-informed practices to more than 15,000 community members across Edgecombe County.
The program educates participants on the basics of ACES and trauma and teaches techniques for responding constructively. Nearly all Edgecombe County Public Schools staff have received the training—from teachers to social workers to school resources officers—as well as a large number of healthcare providers and law enforcement officers.
The primary focus on adults is intentional. “It’s like putting on an airplane oxygen mask,” Jagannathan says. “Adults need to put on their own mask before they can assist the child. A lot of adults have unaddressed trauma that gets triggered when they’re interacting with a child in trouble. We’re helping them regulate their own stress reaction so they’re equipped to stay in the moment and deliver a more restorative response to the child.”
ROI has also invested in training a cohort of 25 local leaders—parents, educators, faith leaders, elected officials and healthcare workers—to become certified resilience trainers. In turn, they have shared the program within their own circles and organizations. “It was important to us that it wasn’t outsiders coming in and doing intervention,” Saeugling says.
ROI’s systems-mapping process also revealed a pervasive mistrust of public agencies from the communities they serve. In response, ROI launched the Resilient Leaders Initiative (RLI), the first social innovation accelerator program based in the rural South. RLI works exclusively with public agencies to help them design and pilot new trauma-informed programs and policies to build trust and enhance support for their staff and constituents.
In 2019, ROI piloted a biofeedback program at a middle school to help students who were struggling with behavior issues to manage anxiety and negative feelings. For just 10 minutes, at the beginning and end of each school day, the kids wore a small heart-rate sensor paired with an app that guided them through personalized breathing exercises to help them self-regulate and calm down. It’s a technique widely used by elite athletes, NASA astronauts and CEOs. The pilot saw a 57% decrease in reported anxiety and an increase in attendance, positive behaviors and academic outcomes. They are currently expanding the program with pilots at an Edgecombe County juvenile detention center and an after-school YMCA program.
ROI sees the work of lifting the community as an all-hands on deck endeavor. All of their learnings, best practices and materials are open source. They hired local illustrators to create flashcards and posters depicting resilience tools from their trainings that have been downloaded more than 1,000 times. In partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ROI provides a biofeedback guide for free on their website that has been downloaded and shared with more than 90,000 people.
ROI’s founders believe the strength of their approach comes from the community itself. “We didn’t come back to North Carolina with a specific solution, which is how a lot of social entrepreneurship happens,” Saeugling says. “We came back with a process that was based in listening to community members and building empathy.”
For their part, Jagannathan and Saeugling are hoping to work themselves out of a job. “Success would be a world where our community has the resources and tools to self-determine their future,” Jagannathan says. “That means reshaping the systemic infrastructure around them to be supportive instead of oppressive, so that they have the ownership and power to drive what happens next.”