“Everybody’s trying to help me, but nobody asked me what I think I need.” -Jay
How do we expect youth to be self-directed learners and leaders if we do not offer them the space, resources, and platform with which to speak—and then, actually listen to them?
Five years ago two like-minded Indy-natives launched organizations centered on youth voice and leadership—Indy Pulse and VOICES. Mine, Indy Pulse, resulted from my experience as an educator teaching on the Far Eastside. My students and their families were resilient, motivated by their greatest hopes for themselves and their communities, and eager to engage in the hard work required to manifest their dreams. Despite this—anemic resource-flow, limited funding, lacking transit and healthy food access, and the community challenges that result from too few job opportunities (such as high rates of crime, violence, and substance abuse)—encumbered my students from reaching the potential they sought. This was, and still is, unacceptable.
Meanwhile, my dear friend Kia Wright created VOICES in response to her student Jay’s question. She was a juvenile justice probation officer who had seen her students condemned to a life involved in systems that were not only not well-equipped to support her students holistically, but also were structurally reinforced students’ dependency. Perhaps you are already thinking this, but I’ll make it clear: our students were predominantly low-income students and often students of color. As an educator committed to public service, and one who deeply believes that equitable, excellent education is a human right—and necessary for a thriving economy and democracy—this is something I spend most of my waking hours thinking about, and working to address.
In 2017, Kia and I started getting serious about how impactful we could be if we officially joined forces. We found each other about two years into the lifecycle of our organizations and, after realizing our shared vision and values, began collaborating. Overtime, we cultivated the incredible synergy between our organizations’ work. We decided to officially, fully integrate our organizations in late 2017. Kia and I had come to the same conclusion—that every student, regardless of class, race, orientation, and despite mistakes they had made—had a voice and deserved, like all of us, to use it. So, the name “VOICES” persists and now embodies a whole new potential comprised of the incredible healing-centered care(a step beyond trauma-informed care) and culturally-integrative programming of our VOICES day-reporting program with all the critical consciousness, literacy skill-building, and artistic imagination indicative of our five-years of Indy Pulse work.
Collectively, we have served over 1,500 youth from low-income backgrounds and nearly 30 different Indianapolis zipcodes. Through educational, artistic, and health-and-wellness programming we have fundamentally helped students revise, edit, and reframe their past, present, and future and support each into becoming agents of positive change. We have earned generous contributions from the Lilly Endowment, CICF, La Plaza, Indianapolis Public Schools Foundation, the Community Alliance of the Far Eastside, Lawrence School District, John H. Boner Community Center, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Our Indy Pulse youth represented not just our city, nor just our state, but were selected to represent our entire region(!) at a national slam poetry competition hosted by The Library of Congress in 2016, and our VOICES leaders and youth recently spoke at the annual Indiana Public Defender’s training conference.
My expertise in education, and Kia’s expertise in criminal justice and social welfare organizations—not to mention the incredible, diverse skillsets our VOICES colleagues bring!—poise us to address the systemic inequities that youth face from all angles. Now, we just need support from you! With our new strategic plan underway, one of our top priorities is to expand and diversify our Board of Directors.
We welcome all those passionate about, and invested in, our mission to apply to our board, and are looking for particular help with fundraising, finance, and legal supports. Not ready to commit to joining our board, but want to get more involved? Consider volunteering for Indy’s first-ever Youth Poet Laureate program (I’m so geeked to be leading on this!) which begins in January of 2019, or with our Power and Promise mentoring program. Want to donate something other than your time and expertise? We always welcome other contributions, and are currently most in need of school supplies, new computers, and arts materials for our day treatment program.