Deconstructing Racism Through School Design

How Empower Community High School embodies anti-racist practice through co-designing with young people

Olivia Jones isn’t used to seeing the light in her apartment at certain times of the day. And a few days during this COVID-19 quarantine she’s gone back to the empty school building. Something about the peaceful building comforts her. Wisdom Amouzou is watching a bird feed in his backyard as the three of us talk over Zoom. He’s finding joy through any kind of storytelling: through writing, watercolor, narration. There are small joys in this quarantine.

The deep respect between Wisdom and Olivia is immediately clear. They are building something important together. They have known each other since serving as Teach For America corps members in 2013 in Denver. In 2014, Olivia brought her students to do a workshop with Wisdom’s 7th graders, during a season of hyper-visible police brutality and resulting criminal justice reform. Olivia co-founded a student-led writing center that was a hotbed of student voice and student power. According to Wisdom, it was a proof point of what happens when young people get to co-create their learning experiences. In August 2019, Wisdom and Olivia partnered with students and families to open Empower Community High school with 120 ninth graders in Aurora, Colorado. They opened with the belief that they had to truly operate as a collective, with the partnership of young people, their families, and their wider community.

The same month as their founding, also in Aurora, Elijah McClain, a Black 23-year-old massage therapist, was walking home from the convenience store when Aurora police were called because McClain “looked suspicious.” A struggle ensued, and McClain died in the hospital days later. In recent weeks, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, McClain’s death has come back to the forefront, with a peaceful protest in his name in the heart of Aurora broken up by police in full riot gear.

Racism’s primary function is to distract you, Wisdom reminds us as we talk, and at Empower they want to keep their eyes on the 100-year mark, on their plan to utterly disrupt and rebuild education as it currently exists. He goes on to say that this country will keep lynching black folks — what does a school who is of the community do in response? If Empower released statements every time a black person was killed, they would be releasing one everyday. But after the death of George Floyd, it felt like they needed to give young people tools because a pandemic kept them from being in school to process together. They needed to break down what they were seeing and invite students and families to reflect.

For now, their impact can start with curriculum. How do they teach students the difference between conformist resistance and transformative resistance? Empower thinks about community responsive curriculum at that granular of a level: what conversations are students having when we’re not there? How do they directly connect the things happening in classrooms to those conversations? As an example, a student posted on social media questioning where were all these activists when immigrants were getting deported? Four weeks later another student reached out to administration to talk about the curriculum she wants to build in response to that comment. She’s thinking about what tests and experiences can get students to see that kind of solidarity.

Their impact also starts outside of the classroom, with The Hustle Collective, one of Empower’s responses to student needs. Currently in its second session, The Hustle Collective is a virtual student-led learning opportunity for middle and high school students in Aurora. The young people who take part in The Hustle Collective are provided with $50-$100 of supplies sent directly to their home to teach themselves a skill they have always wanted to learn. Irina, a member of Empower’s Community Design team and one of the executive organizers of The Hustle Collective, describes the experience as both rough and beautiful. Muskaan, a student participant in the Hustle Collective, has learned painting and ceramics through the two sessions she’s participated in. She has learned how to put herself out there as a result of the student-led structure. Sean, another student participant, learned video editing and appreciated that The Hustle Collective gave him a way to change up his routine.

Empower believes in the humanity of young people. While many schools want to empower their students as decision makers in their education, Empower is truly positioning young people as co-creators of their educational experience. This is the pathway to utterly disrupting and rebuilding education as it currently exists: ensuring that young people are the true designers of their learning. When Irina joined the community design team in 2017, they were still a high school student. They had a voice in shaping what their school became. As a team, they designed the Empower community. There were elements that deeply mattered to them that have come to life: a space with no school resource officers, a space inclusive of a spectrum of identities, and a space that cultivated a mindset of social justice and empowerment. From student-driven curriculum to programs like The Hustle Collective, Empower is taking steps meaningful toward realizing the humanity of its young people.

As they prepare to continue serving these young people in the fall in the midst of a global pandemic, Empower is looking for love from its community. “Love can look a lot of different ways in public,” Wisdom says. “This fall we’re going to need volunteers who are willing to tutor, to mentor. We don’t care if it’s one hour a month, one hour a week. Students in the community will need you.” If you want to learn more about Empower Community High School and The Hustle Collective, we invite you to learn about their work and partnerships here.

Empower Community High School was an awardee of the inaugural Enduring Ideas award, given by The Reinvention Lab and powered by Teach For America. To learn more about all Enduring Ideas awardees, click here.

Illustration is by Drew Madson. Madson is an award-winning illustrator, educator, caricaturist, and doodler. His work has been featured in Harvard Ed. Week Magazine, The Harvard Citizen, CSB/SJU Record, and more.