In May 2016, Hillary Bridges founded Telling Our Story (TOS), which allows young Black people to learn about Black/American history in a safe and intentional space. Hillary was motivated to create TOS over years of pondering her own lack of knowledge about her history as a Black American and of observing the lack of understanding, both in herself and in others, of the racial disparities she saw around her. As Hillary learned much later than she felt she should have, racism has played an immeasurable role in the formation of the United States. As a result, race and ethnicity largely determine social status and opportunity in this country. However, our American History curricula continue to ignore and deny this injustice and its devastating impact, compelling students to accept the myth of meritocracy, the false ideology that hard work is more determinative of success than one’s racial, gender, and socioeconomic privilege. A recent study shows that beliefs that the American system is fair and just “undermine the wellbeing of marginalized youth”(http://bit.ly/2y4YWTL). Students of color are disproportionately and detrimentally affected by the inaccuracy surrounding issues of race in public education. Only if the United States is able to acknowledge its history of oppression will we be able to overcome it. But we are not on the road to acknowledging this history. White supremacy and our lack of education about it continue to harm us all, regardless of race, by preventing us from addressing the root causes of societal injustice. Hillary created TOS to set us on the course towards acknowledging and overcoming our racist past and present.
TOS ran three pilot programs for high school students, and one for fifth and sixth grade students, in New Haven, CT in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years. By the spring of 2017, we had created a 10-session, high school level Black/American history curriculum and had run programs for over 100 young Black American high school students in New Haven. One Telling Our Story alum said, “I was in a group of individuals who faced the same kind of discrimination that I did...I developed a greater sense of self-love and appreciation, because I wasn’t alone on this journey that I’m taking.” Although the initial TOS curriculum was an important start, we have now formed a curriculum design team to significantly improve upon our old curriculum and to help us expand the Telling Our Story program. This team includes our project manager, Kerry Lord, a former principal and teacher who now works for the Connecticut Center for School Chance; Crystal Feimster, a tenured professor of African-American Studies, History, and American Studies at Yale University; Nataliya Braginsky and Monique Frasier, both of whom are teachers in New Haven public high schools; Alexia Williams and Lauren Meyer, both of whom are PhD candidates in African American and American Studies at Yale; and Yuni Chang, a Yale undergraduate student majoring in Ethnicity, Race, & Migration. After the first draft of the curriculum is completed, we will begin another pilot program, both within and outside of schools in New Haven.
The founding TOS team learned a lot from the pilot, much of which led to the renewed curriculum development plan currently underway. They also learned that while an after-school program is essential to ensuring that young Black people have time to come together to share their unique histories and experiences, much of this essential history should be not only be taught after school to Black students, but should be taught as part of the school day. In May of 2017, the TOS team added an organizing campaign to our work, which we call PREST (People for Race and Ethnicity Studies Today). PREST envisions a country in which the histories of black people and people of color are taught, understood, and celebrated as fundamental to American history and where people feel affirmed in their identities. Our goals are to make anti-racism trainings required for educators and to make race and ethnicity studies required for students in the state of Connecticut. We know that organizing efforts are best led by those most directly affected by the issue and young people in New Haven had already been calling for more Black and Latinx history in their classrooms; thus, in July of 2017, we created a youth civic engagement and political education program called the PREST Youth Team (PYT). Every Thursday, we host approximately 15-20 high school students from various schools around New Haven to participate in political education and organizing trainings. We have hosted six community conversations about race and ethnicity studies, attended by over 200 parents, teachers, and community members. In addition, we have sent over 10 young people to anti-racism and youth organizing trainings across the state. Our work has created significant buzz in New Haven about youth-led organizing, education justice, and curricular reform.
With the guidance and insight of our Program Coordinator, Briyana, who is now a rising college freshman, we became very aware of the fact that many of the ways in which we function as an organization continued to reflect some of the same societal adult-centered systems of oppression we hope to fight. In order to address this problem, and to truly develop leadership amongst our PREST Youth Team, this past month, we established our youth-led, intergenerational PREST Leadership Team (PLT), which is the primary steering committee for our work. This team meets at least once per week and consists of Briyana, four high school student Organizers, our current Executive Director (Hillary), and our Campaign Organizer (a rising college junior). We are in the process of hiring a Lead Organizer, who will both join the Leadership Team and also work with our Organizers to develop our strategic campaign to achieve our goals. This summer we are excited to host our first major PREST celebration and recruitment event. In the fall we are looking forward to hosting our first hearing with the New Haven Board of Alders and to continuing to build power with other local organizing groups.
We are proud of what we have accomplished thus far this year and can honestly say that we have now transitioned from a youth development program to a youth-led organizing body. This was only possible because the young people on our team now see themselves as leaders with legitimate input, opinions, and power to act.
Proposed Use of Funds
Telling Our Story’s, primary goals for the next year are:
to complete a working draft of the initial modules that will be a part of the Telling Our Story curriculum by the end of 2018. This curriculum building work began in May 2018 and has developed quickly. The Yale team has determined and researched the material for the curriculum and the teachers are now in the process of turning that material into units that will be appropriate for high school and middle school students.
to determine through what venues this curriculum will be utilized and to build the necessary relationships to make its implementation successful. We see recruitment and retention of students as a potential challenge as that was the case in one our TOS pilot programs. However we are confident that we will build the necessary structures and relationships to ensure that we will be successful in far exceeding our recruitment goals. We plan to run our first pilot program in the spring of 2019.
The PREST Movement is prioritizing five goals from now, Summer 2018, through Summer 2019.
Continue to support PREST youth leaders in leading our organization and in spearheading our campaign through our youth-led PREST Leadership Team.
Grow our member-base which includes students, parents, community members, administrators and educators. We envision this happening both through one to ones and in-person events and also through further developing our social media reach and marketing strategies.
Meet with local elected leadership who will help us better inform our campaign strategy. We plan to continue to learn about our local government in order to best understand the powers at play in the world of education and racial justice organizing.
To begin the groundwork necessary to be able to implement a Race and Ethnicity Studies pilot class for the 2019-2020 school year. We envision this being a collaboration between the work of PREST and Telling Our Story.
Develop and implement an evaluation system. We know that being able to reflect honestly and objectively upon our past work will allow us to be effective in achieve our future goals.
In order to achieve these goals, we must hire a full-time Executive Director who has the experience, vision, and dedication to take TOS and PREST to their next level of success. We are also in the process of hiring a full-time Lead Organizer. Both of these individuals will help us continue to grow the work of PREST and Telling Our Story so that we can make the broader change we aim to make in Connecticut and across the country.
We do not expect to do this work alone. PREST moves with the power of our comrades in other Connecticut-based organizations such as: Citywide Youth Coalition, Hearing Youth Voices, Connecticut Students For a Dream, Make the Road CT, CT-CORE Organize Now!, Unidad Latina en Accion, New Haven Educator’s Collective, and various high schools in New Haven. We are also learning from our fellow Connecticutians in Bridgeport, who have made significant progress in creating and implementing a graduation requirement course on race and ethnicity studies in all Bridgeport public high schools by 2022.
We are also excited to continue to build relationships with organizers around the country who are engaged in related work. The PREST Movement has worked with an organization in New Mexico called Families United for Education (FUE), an organizing body that was responsible for making ethnic studies an elective in all Albuquerque high schools. We look forward to helping build a coalition of national partners in this work particularly in the West and Southwest. Finally, we are planning to host a learning session in New Haven with Cycle and Coalition for Education Justice around to their recent big organizing win for culturally relevant training for teachers in NYC.
Our primary goals over the next year are to build the capacity of the young people on our Leadership Team and in our Youth Team program and to launch and build upon our strategic campaign. In January, we hired a program evaluation coach, Melanie, who is helping us to build systems necessary for thorough program evaluation. We will evaluate our success in capacity building using these indicators: critical consciousness, youth efficacy, public youth actors, and youth-led power. These measures reflect how we hope to facilitate youth empowerment to create transformational change. We will most likely use both written evaluations in addition to interviews to help us determine our progress. We are also in the process of determining how we will evaluate our community organizing work out in the world this year. Melanie is very involved in the world of organizing and will help us assemble an evaluation system that assesses whether or not we are reaching these organizing goals as well.
We envision these evaluation results being used in two primary ways. The first is to help us improve our work internally. Our organization has many goals, including building youth power and organizing to transform our education system, and we want to verify that we are being effective. We will use this data to better understand where we are falling short of our goals and to make revisions to our programs, staff trainings, and organizing models and methodologies. The second is to help other organizations achieve their goals through advancing institutional knowledge in the fields of youth-led organizing and education and racial justice organizing. Over the past year of building PREST, we have learned a lot that we believe will contribute to a larger roadmap for moving organizations from having youth participants to developing and supporting authentic youth leaders.
Once we are ready to implement the programmatic division of Telling Our Story, we will hire Melanie to help us evaluate this work as well.