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Come as One, Stand as 10,000

Driving change so every student feels empowered, has agency, and feels safe to bring their whole selves (and ideas) to school

“I come as one, but I stand as ten thousand.”

These immortal words from poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, are the refrain that Alejandra Meza carries with her each day through the halls of her high school and through her community. A dual meaning of the quote is the driving force behind her work as an activist and as a member of NTC’s Equity Commission.

The first meaning, an honoring of the past. A constant reminder of all those who came before her and helped her get to where she is. “I really try to embody that through all my work,” said Alejandra. “I come as myself as an individual, but I stand as my ancestors.”

The second, a demand for the future, a catalyst for the work she does to ensure student voices are heard, fully listened to, and empowered. “I want every student to feel that they come as one and they stand as ten thousand.  I believe this concept goes hand in hand with student empowerment. I want to see that every student feels empowered, has agency, and feels comfortable and safe enough to raise their ideas in class. I want students to feel belonging in the classroom.”

Alejandra’s work understands and challenges the deeply seeded, clinical framing that places barriers in front of youth discovering and fully understanding their innate talents. Deficit language and actions guided by deficit mindsets abound in our education system, projecting harmful ideas about identity and ability onto students from systemically underserved communities. She challenges the ingrained ideas that minoritized students need to be saved, rather they need to be heard, supported, and given agency. This environment directly impacts educators and students, causing long-lasting harm and additional cycles of distress.

"I want every student to feel empowered…"

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With ancestors rooting her on and a powerful vision for a future where students are empowered and have agency over their own education, Alejandra has taken an active role in making that future a reality. In 2020, Alejandra founded a new group at school, Students for Equity on Campus (SEC). “When I started Students for Equity on Campus, I knew I had to be the one to take the initiative because the school was not going to promote this type of organization. That means there’s a lack of student empowerment.”  Through student empowerment, the group’s mission is to create a more equitable and inclusive environment in order to advance meaningful diversity.  The organization creates a space where diversity ideals are implemented to foster a campus climate where all students feel recognized.

Alejandra acknowledges that change won’t happen overnight, especially when there is so much that needs to change. This work will require a coalition of like minded individuals who embody the values that they are working towards. It won’t be easy, but Alejandra passionately believes that this is the path towards improving campus climate for future students to benefit from. Completely student-led, with the support of a faculty advisor, SEC has already embarked on a variety of strategic projects including two survey-based projects, with a critical focus on subsequent implementation of the gathered data.

“You have to be really careful and deliberate about how you go about survey-based projects. You don’t want to be like ‘oh we’re doing something and it’s taking so much time.’ You want to make sure that you can measure the progress that comes out of that project.”

One of the projects, aimed at examining the accessibility of her school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) values, asks two questions: “what DEI values do you want to see in our school?” and “what are the DEI values [of our school that] you know of?” Through these relatively simple questions, Alejandra and her team are looking to gauge how effectively DEI principles are being shared through measuring understanding in the student community.

“We’re going to see if students know the school’s DEI values. Are they accessible to students? Because if they’re not, that’s a problem. After that, we’re going to use the data to implement ways for students to really understand these DEI values and embody them, that way we can transform campus culture to be inclusive.”

Alejandra and her classmates are taking initiative in their school and creating real tangible progress. Students have powerful voices and know exactly what it is they need from their schooling environment to succeed. If we didn’t already know this, Alejandra’s story makes it abundantly clear. The issue arises when student voices are not listened to or actively engaged with. On that front, Alejandra has a powerful message for us all:

“I define student empowerment as feeling comfortable with taking the initiative.  My mom told me early on that you define your self worth and that you need to know how good you are so you can be comfortable in your own skin.  I need to be comfortable in my brown skin.”

“In fact, that’s step one: students need to be supported and empowered in their identities. Next, students need to feel that they can make the change they want to see. Schools can support students by being willing to enact that change which can create a culture that empowers students. Schools need to be open to changing established policies and committing to putting in the effort. There needs to be a collective mindset that will actively support student agency and empowerment.”

Students are leading the way to a better tomorrow. At NTC, we have the privilege of seeing this in action through Alejandra and the other members of the growing student advisory group she is building. What we need to do is provide them with the tools to make their vision a reality, work with them to fully understand and remove any systemic barriers that may block their powerful forward movement, and honestly…get out of their way.

Alejandra is serving on New Teacher Center’s Education Equity Commission and Student Advisory Group. We’re grateful for her dedication and leadership.