Youth Led Equity Council in Mesa County Empowers Students to Design Community Culture

February 18, 2021

CEI and Mesa County Valley School District 51 have been working in partnership to support youth engagement and community advocacy efforts, through a grant from the Gates Family Foundation.

Educators and students from Palisade High School (PHS) and Bookcliff Middle School in Grand Junction formed a Youth Led Equity Council (YLEC) in 2019 to explore ideas for shifting the cultural experiences of students of color by deepening the understanding of their cultures throughout the district. Between July 2019 and December 2020, 17 middle school students and 10 high school students worked to develop and achieve goals, with support from International Baccalaureate educators from the high school and the Dual Language coordinator at the middle school.

The council’s work began with a definition of their purpose, and they engaged in discussions with students, educators, and community members to better understand the equity challenges within the Grand Junction area. The YLEC shared their goals with educators from across the country during a visit to the Stanford in Palo Alto, where they received valuable feedback and inspiration from the other participants and Stanford staff. These collaborative efforts contributed to the creation of five goals.

  1. Convene a safe space for student leaders to increase communication, own cultural awareness, and build solidarity around experiences related to inequities.
  2. Increase student participation in monthly district-wide equity advisory council.
  3. Lead workshops with educators to increase cultural competency.
  4. Create and implement classroom workshops for students to increase understanding of equity.
  5. Increase awareness and buy-in from educators across the district.

Students were central to the design and testing of approaches to achieve their stated goals. The adult facilitators of the YLEC guided students through engagement practices, progressing to a point where students were leading workshops for their peers, teachers, and other school staff.

Two students from the YLEC were asked to co-author an article for Soleado – the Dual Language New Mexico newsletter for the La Cosecha conference edition with adult leaders on the YLEC.

From Outreach to Action

  • In August 2020, before students returned to school, high school students led a 90-minute workshop on cultural proficiency and racism in schools for the district’s school resource officers.
  • During D51’s back-to-school professional development, students led two optional 90-minute virtual sessions for teachers across the district, prompting additional session requests.
  • A Palisade High School senior and freshman and a Dual Immersion Academy graduate presented two 90-minute cultural competency workshops to IB Diploma Programme juniors during their first unit on interrogating and understanding our world views and lenses.
  • This school year, the PHS YLEC leadership team began meeting quarterly with the PHS administration to address equity issues, including more gender-inclusive graduation gowns and a revised dress code policy.
  • In October 2020, three students (two PHS Seniors and one freshman) gave two 90-minute presentations at Colorado Mesa University, one to pre-service principals and one to pre-service teachers.
  • In February 2021, three seniors and a freshman collaborated with district leadership, sharing ideas for starting a district-wide student-led equity council. The also conducted a presentation for all middle and high school principals in the district about how to start a school-based student-led equity council, including an opportunity for student-teacher partnerships to receive microgrants from their student-led grant committee.
  • In Spring 2021, PHS YLEC team members will provide a cultural proficiency presentation for all PHS Freshmen advisories. They have also planned an Equity in Student Leadership panel and presentation for all of the district’s high school student governments, that will feature university student body presidents of color.

Students of color have demonstrated substantial growth in their equity journey in a community with very limited diversity, taking meaningful action to change the narratives and expectations in their community. As a result, students have published articles about their work and engaged in conference presentations as their work continues to engage with the community as a whole. A spoken word artist has been invited to join the council to provide writers workshops and performances, and work is underway to identify space for a mural celebrating diversity.

Activating Youth, Increasing Engagement

Youth Activation triadThrough partnership with the YLEC and Mesa County School District 51, CEI has identified important elements of youth activation that will be carried forward across other bodies of work related to youth activation. CEI’s Youth Activation Theory of Change states three major components we have deemed necessary to support authentic youth activation: purpose, agency, and power.

As educators implement practices that are based in problem-based learning and inquiry, students are being asked to demonstrate their learning in new ways. This type of authentic student work provides a pathway to the type of student agency that leads to tangible, positive outcomes.