It was just a few months after Dawnya Johnson’s 17-year-old cousin had been killed by a spray of bullets. He was the one who had watched out for her while she was in foster care, the one who protected her and filled the shoes of her incarcerated father. Now he was gone. Dawnya was angry. Depressed. And she was about to fail her sophomore year in high school.
It was during this time that she decided one Tuesday to accompany a friend to The Intersection, an after-school program for inner-city Baltimore high schoolers. There, she saw a group of teenagers discussing the role of youth in the civil rights movement.
“I was just so intrigued by the level of conversation going on in that room that I just had to stay,” said Dawnya, 17. At school, “we never talk about the issues that were plaguing our communities and really affecting us.”
Today, Dawnya is a student leader at the nonprofit organization, which was borne in 2011 out of the classroom experiences of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) members Zeke Cohen, Yasmene Mumby and Matt Stern. Not only does The Intersection prepare youth to attend and complete college; it also teaches them how to think critically, identify challenges they and their communities face and take action to solve them.
“A lot of times when we think about inner-city kids, they’re thought of in the context of either being part of the problem or victims,” said Zeke, the organization’s executive director. “What if we could shift that lens and show that young people could actually be a part of the solutions and fix what’s broken in our schools, homes and neighborhoods?”
That approach is making an impact: Through organizing rallies, canvassing neighborhoods and sharing stories, Intersection youth contributed to the adoption in 2013 of the Maryland Dream Act, which allows qualified undocumented college students to access in-state tuition rates. Now, their latest endeavor is the 235 Lives campaign, which aims to address gun violence by creating one youth job for each person murdered in Baltimore in 2013.
A growing movement
What’s happening at The Intersection is just a sliver of an emerging movement of innovative leaders like Zeke who are dedicated to creating more equitable educational opportunities in the city. The effort is being supported by many of the estimated 700 Teach for America (TFA) graduates who are teachers, advocates and public leaders, all of whom stayed in Baltimore and continue to deepen their relationships within often forgotten communities. Each is drawing on their own experiences in the classroom, with parents and with students, to collectively transform the landscape of possibility in Charm City – and inspire others to do the same.
For its part, LEE’s regional director in Baltimore, Taylor Stewart, connects members to one another so they may identify common interests to pursue, such as improving school leadership. Through one-on-one meetings, Taylor also builds relationships with members, helps them forge their leadership trajectory and recruits them to join the movement in Baltimore.
They include educators like Tamesha Webb, who is in her third year of teaching and aims to become a superintendent. She said a recent LEE leadership training “definitely helped me in trying to understand the journey,” to achieve her goal. “I always knew the end result, but I didn’t know the path to get there.”
Like Tamesha, others are feeling empowered by their interactions with LEE to embark on potentially transformative paths: They’re gathering regularly to hash out solutions to their classroom and community concerns. They’re learning basic community organizing skills. And they’re mobilizing citizens around educational issues they believe need to be addressed in Baltimore.
“We all know what the others are focusing on in their sphere of influence and we always look for partnerships,” to solve problems together, said Maryland Sen. Bill Ferguson, a LEE member who taught in Baltimore from 2005-2007.
A network of support
In 2010, Bill at 27 years old became the youngest-ever Maryland state senator to be elected. Motivated to enter politics after a “life-shattering, perspective-shattering” experience as a Baltimore City Schools teacher, Bill’s time in the classroom continues to inform his legislative efforts, most recently his leadership on the passage of an unprecedented $1 billion initiative to renovate and rebuild 35 city schools. The campaign originated with the Baltimore Education Coalition, which was founded by LEE member Shannen Coleman Siciliano and co-chaired by Yasmene Mumby to advocate with policymakers to garner support for city schools. The coalition was on the outside, as Bill put it, and he was on the inside, pushing to improve school environments.
“It really helped to have this kind of network to bounce ideas off of and strategize,” he said. “That shared experience of TFA was driving our work in our professional sphere outside of the classroom and it definitely was a benefit to seeing a really big initiative pass.”
Intersection youth participated, too. Zeke hopes such experiences demonstrate to students that despite what zip code they live in they have a voice in the policies and processes that impact their lives. He said the critical thinking and political skills youth gain from being civically engaged will help them thrive academically in the 21st century – and in life.
For Dawnya, The Intersection has helped her realize her intellectual and leadership potential and has replaced her cousin as her primary support system. Today, she attends private school on a full scholarship – although she’s quick to say how disappointed she is in the difference between her private and former public school education. The quality, Dawnya said, should be “equally great.”
Dawnya now has her eye on studying political science at Goucher College. Maybe she’ll eventually join TFA or the Peace Corps too, to give back, pay it forward. “I’m definitely excited for what’s to come,” she said. “I’m ready for it.”
Zeke continues to serve his community through The Intersection by guiding and inspiring teens like Dawnya. He is taking another impactful step in serving his community by running for Baltimore City Council to represent District 1 in 2016.