April Rêve Revolve: Portland Empowered Youth Engagement Partners

This Friday (April 27th) at 5:30, Meg C. will lead a ride that will be the first in our new monthly series, Rêve Revolve. This month, we spotlight Portland Empowered’s Youth Engagement Partners, a youth-led education reform group that includes members from all three Portland public high schools—Casco Bay, Deering, and Portland High Schools. Last Spring, Meg got involved with the program through one of her professors at USM who hand-selected her to take on an internship with the program. Her responsibilities ranged widely, from working with the adult allies to help facilitate and organize the student led meetings to building their website with the program staff to bringing the all-important snacks. However, through it all, she has been endlessly impressed by the work that the organization does to support Portland’s high school students to lift their voices for positive change. She wrapped up her internship this spring, but wanted to find a way to give back to the program, which had taught her so much and where she’d seen such important work being done over the last year.

In the spirit of the program and its focus on youth voice, we sat down with two of the Youth Lead Organizers who have been involved with the program for the last 3 years: Tasha, a senior at Portland High School, and Bilan, a junior at Deering High School. They reflected on their experiences with the program, the types of work that they’ve been able to accomplish, and how the funds raised by our amazing Rêve community may be used to help support their work.

  Meg with YEP Student Lead Organizers, Bilan (L) & Tasha (R)

Meg with YEP Student Lead Organizers, Bilan (L) & Tasha (R)

The participating youth of approximately 20 students, who called themselves YEPs, have created an organizing structure where they take the driver’s seat in all of the major decision-making and work of the program, while “adult allies” and interns, such as Meg, provide support to help to amplify their message and offer ongoing support to ensure that they have the resources required to turn their plans into a reality. Tasha reflected on her time with the program, saying, “YEP is very open. It’s made me realize that this work is a good fit for me because I see it in my school, whether it be big issues like discrimination, or just how youth just don’t really have a voice in the school.” Similarly, Bilan said, “It’s a safe space for me to talk about...my school. When I was initially involved in the program, I was coming from middle school and I was getting adjusted to the high school experience. I was able to talk about what I wanted to change and actually make a difference because there are other peers who feel like I do. So together we have a lot more power than the individual.” The program has not only united them across the Portland Public School district, but also given them the structure to tackle problems that are essential to creating school environments that will support their success.

Each school year, YEP kicks things off with a number of meetings during which they select their priority issue for the year ahead. Oftentimes, the group takes a community organizing approach to the issues that they are tackling. They leverage creative strategies—such as a youth-made video—to get their messages heard. Once they identify those, the YEPs figure out a strategy that they believe will make a constructive change across all Portland Public Schools. In the past, this has included things like fostering better relationships between students and teachers. However, this year, Tasha told us, they are focused on student government because they realized that, across the three schools, it didn’t really have a working structure that made it a useful tool for students to make their voices heard. There focus has been on “making it accessible to students and making it more meaningful within the school community.” In order to address these issues, YEP students are collaborating on an app about student government within all 3 Portland Public High Schools.

 

After talking to the student governments at all three schools, the YEP members developed a plan that focuses on what youth identified as essential in strengthening student government as a school-based resource and streamlining information on school policies and practices. The app will centralize a lot of the complex information surrounding student government and school policies that they’ve gathered from all 3 schools’ websites and district policies. Additionally, the students have simplified it from what Bilan called the “adult-y language” of official school documents. They are trying to launch the app before next school year. However, in order to do so, they need additional financial support to facilitate its development. “With the work that we’re doing now, the funds raised will go towards the app itself and helping us locate and secure the resources to make the app as strong as it can be, whether it be seeing people who are specialized in app making.” Additionally, it will help promote and market the app.

 

Reflecting on their experiences with YEP, both students identified the important role it played in their own time in high school and how they see it supporting their peers for years to come. Tasha said, “Once I became a senior, I became more involved because I experienced the issues in my high school. I don’t want students to go through what me and my friends have gone through. So, coming here and recruiting other people to get involved has been really important to me.” Bilan echoed this sentiment, “It’s allowed me to critically look at my school and think about what’s wrong and what needs to be done, instead of just accepting the norm or what is traditionally accepted. I don’t want the younger students to have some of the same experiences as I have and to make that change is really important to me.”

For Meg, the time with these students has also been transformative. She is constantly impressed with their ability to work around issues that impact their lives at school—and the way that they collaborate to make a bigger change across the Portland Public School District. She said, “After being involved in this kind of work, I’ve realized how important student voice is. Even as a student still, my time with the program has made me see how powerful it can be when you can get a group of people together to make a positive difference. I think this type of work needs to be supported because this is our future.”

So please join us on Friday, April 27th, as we kick off Rêve Revolve, in which we will come together as a community to raise money to support local initiatives—like Portland Empowered—that are doing meaningful work and making a huge impact in our community. #rêveitup  

Bernadette Doykos