Case Study: In a Class of their Own

Southwest OrgExcerpt from the report: Keeping the Promise: Evolving Nonprofit strategies in the U.S. Southwest Help Latino Men and Boys to Harness Potential Authors: Sandra Ortsman, Independent Consultant, with Anne Hand, Senior Program Manager, Hispanics in Philanthropy. When public school disciplinary policies unfairly affect students of color, Latino youth re-write the book on accountability. Harsh disciplinary policies in public schools disproportionately impact students of color, particularly Latino youths. These “tough on crime” policies increase suspension and expulsion, ultimately turning students over to authorities and beginning a pipeline that often leads to incarceration. The SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) invests in the leadership skills of Latino youth to work alongside school leaders inside the system, while also mobilizing other youth and lowincome families in the community to disrupt this school-to-prison pipeline. The Project: After achieving successful passage of “The Student Bill of Rights” as a state Senate memorial, a core group of 15 mostly Latino SWOP youth worked to incorporate the Student Bill of Rights into the Albuquerque Public Schools Student Handbook. Their work also involved influencing district leaders to accurately track discipline data and involve youth of color and their families at the policymaking table. After years of organizing in the community and often in confrontation with the district, the school district acknowledged its lack of experience working with marginalized youths and families and approached SWOP for assistance. This created a unique Nonprofit and Public Sector Partnership. “It was a new opportunity for us to seize a little bit of power and relationships and resources from the district that we had never had before,” recalled Emma Sandoval, SWOP Youth Organizer. “Previously, we had been kicked out of schools because they thought we were too political. And now, they were knocking at our doors asking us to help.” SWOP organizers came to realize that working on the inside did not diminish the need to simultaneously push for change on the outside. A student walkout protesting the bias and corporate nature of specific standardized tests put significant tension on the new relationship. SWOP sided with the protesting youths while the district was against the walkout. Despite these differences, SWOP continued to work with the district while pushing to keep youth voices center stage. “Working with an institution that has a history of being part of a system that has an oppressive culture is very challenging,” said Sandoval. “We had to have hard conversations about the realities of what men and boys of color face when [school administrators] make policies that are really punitive, and what are the impacts.” SWOP youths worked to Break the School-to-Prison Pipeline by demanding that the school district track and aggregate its discipline data by race, gender and type of infraction. Through this project, participants also re-envisioned the Schoolhouse as an Incubator for Democracy. SWOP youths mobilized other youth and their community to become more knowledgeable about how school board decisions impact their lives, to call for accountability from school board leaders and to increase school board election turnout. “There’s been a culture in the district to not feel accountable to their communities because so few people vote,” Sandoval said. “Even though they have a real responsibility to parents and students, the reality is not all parents and students can vote — because young people can’t vote, and there are many families who cannot vote because they are undocumented, or have a felony and cannot engage in the electoral process.” Youth and families became informed, hosted candidate forums, attended meetings and started to hold the district accountable, regardless of their voter status. “Our youth had the boldness to go to school board meetings and try to achieve actual policy that changed the conversation on a much broader scale,” says Javier Benavidez, SWOP Executive Director. In fighting for the Student Bill of Rights, SWOP youths demanded equity for all students. “It focuses around constitutionally protected rights, being able to speak different languages, access to afterschool programs, and quality education that’s equitable and proportionate,” said Sandoval. “There’s a lot of stuff around the rights students have when they are in trouble and ensuring that young people aren’t being unfairly punished, based on their race and gender.” Many of the youths are now motivated to run for positions on the school board. Sandoval describes their journey as a “pipeline of leadership development: Young people come up through the organization and then have their skill set developed to the point where they are able to transition to other spaces. Sometimes it’s at the university, sometimes it’s organizing with other community groups and sometimes it’s actual employment within SWOP.” The cycle of empowerment is completed as former SWOP youth return to the organization as adult members. Lessons Learned and Next Steps: As a result of this work, Albuquerque Public Schools has implemented new systems to track and aggregate student discipline data. The first round of numbers is expected to be released soon. SWOP anticipates that the new district student handbook coming out next school year will include the Student Bill of Rights. This project was also instrumental in creating VIA (Voices for Change), a student advisory committee that provides input to school district leaders. Almost half of the VIA members are SWOP youths. “We will continue to maintain relationships with the district, but we’ll also continue to do what we do best, which is organizing,” Sandoval said. “That means bringing attention to negative policy issues as they come up, as well as trying to be proactive in developing and putting our vision forward of what it really means to work effectively with young people and to support and uplift youth and their families.” SWOP will continue to work with APS as they hold the district accountable for the gains made through this project. “It’s great to get policy passed,” says Benavidez, “but you have to stay on the implementation to follow through, or it just gets sucked up into the machine. We are fighting for actual investment in our families.”