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The Black Swan Academy: Empowering Black Youth through Civic Leadership and Engagement

Education Forward DC
Education Forward DC

Education Forward DC supports organizations that amplify the voices of students and families to inform school decisions through our Public Engagement grants. We are proud to support the work of the Black Swan Academy (BSA) as they focus on developing Black youth leaders who are committed to improving themselves as well as their communities. Founder and Executive Director, Samantha Davis, wrote a piece highlighting their work and their 2019 Black Youth Agenda, “Love us, Don’t harm us.”

The Black Swan Academy (BSA) is committed to building a pipeline of Black youth civic leaders who are dedicated to improving themselves and their communities through service and advocacy. While young people are often the most impacted by social issues – whether through a lack of affordable housing, gun violence, or education inequity – their voices and leadership are often absent from decision making tables. We know that young people are the experts on what they need and with support are the best suited to lead positive systemic change. Our work provides youth members with tools, resources, and opportunities they need to be effective change agents, particularly through community building and local policy change. One way we do this is through supporting middle and high school students in developing their own Black Youth Advocacy Agenda that raises the unique concerns of Black youth living in the District of Columbia and aims to create positive systemic change through public policy and youth organizing. In February, BSA’s core youth members convened to lay out our agenda and identified a collective concern around experiences of trauma, most connected to various forms of violence and lack of support for youth and their families to thrive. Together, they created BSA ’s 2019 Black Youth Agenda “Love us, Don’t harm us”.

It calls for DC leaders to:

  1. #LetMeVent by increasing mental health supports in school.
  2. #Stoptheviolence by moving beyond policing and investing in violence prevention programs, specifically community violence interrupters.
  3. Invest in #hopeandhomes by increasing affordable housing for youth and families in DC.

Our research shows that over 800 youth of color attempted suicide withing the 12-month period of 2017 according to the DC Youth Behavior Survey. So far this year there have been more than 64 homicides, almost exclusively impacting Black youth directly or indirectly either through the loss of their own life or the life of a loved one. Youth of color in DC, particularly Black youth, often experience traumatic life events yet lack the support necessary to cope and maintain their mental health. Instead, their outward displays of distress, sadness, and trauma are either dismissed or criminalized. For example, there are currently twice the amount of school resource officers in schools than social workers. Thus, it’s not surprising that youth of color are least likely to get the support they need to cope with life’s circumstances, yet they are most likely to be suspended, expelled, and arrested. These statistics are echoed by the lived experiences of BSA youth leaders:

Blessen, an eleventh grader at Idea Public Charter School shared when she testified at the Oversight Hearing for Metropolitan Police Department where she advocated for more community violence interrupters: “My friend was coming from school and I was at the library. His cousin had called me crying. I remember her saying ‘Jaylyn got shot.’ I was in shock. I was just texting him. She called me back and told me that he didn’t make it. My heart was broken. He was only 15.”

Ceon, an eleventh grader at Idea Public Charter School shared when she testified at the Oversight Hearing for DC Behavioral Health where she advocated for more mental health supports: “I was once a troubled child because I didn’t have enough support. I often feel like I wasn’t cared about, I had a hard time paying attention, and was stressed in class so I acted out. I was pushed out and missed a lot of work because no one understood me and what I was going through.”

Jalen, a tenth grader at Idea Public Charter School testified at the DC Public Charter School hearing that when his mother passed away when he was in fifth grade, he “waited days on end” to speak with someone for just 30 minutes because there was only one mental health professional available at his elementary school.

Dakota, a sixth grader at Kramer Middle School testified at the DC Public Charter School hearing, “When I was in class having a breakdown my teacher noticed. She sent me to the school counselor, I rarely go there but she wasn’t in the room. My heart dropped. I was let down. Let me vent.”

Tionna, a ninth-grader now at Anacostia High School shares; “Let me vent. When I was in middle school, I had a predicament which resulted in me needing a therapist. I had an outburst and their response was reactionary as opposed to preventative. Having a therapist available may have prevented this incident. Eventually a therapist was brought to the school and somehow, my therapist ended up being other people’s therapist. I was confused because she was talking to me less and less. My situation exposed that students do not have access to therapists even though they clearly need it.”

The “Love Us. Don’t Harm Us” Agenda charges DC Council members to invest in the social, emotional, and mental wellbeing of youth instead of investing in practices and policies that cause further harm. Core youth members of BSA have been actively moving their agenda forward by testifying at public hearings, holding meetings with DC Council members, co- hosting rallies with parent advocates and educators, engaging in issue education via social media, and by participating in peace walks and community outreach efforts that promote peace and mental wellness.

Our work alongside others in this city helped secure over $10 million towards increasing mental health supports in schools. This builds on the work the DC Council has begun around addressing the racial inequities in our education system through legislation such as the Fair Access to School Act, which shifts from practices like expulsion and suspension that further criminalize our youth, towards a public health approach that invests in the health and wellbeing of our young people. This work has also secured millions of dollars for violence prevention programs and affordable housing. Whether in hearings or rallies, youth leaders chanted “Let Me Vent” using their voices and stories to demonstrate the need for these investments.

We are pleased that the DC Council has taken action to increase mental health supports in schools, violence prevention, and affordable housing. Note that our gratitude is not without acknowledgement that far more needs to be done. We at BSA believe that if we are serious about addressing racial inequity in our schools, in enhancing the safety and support for our young people, and in ensuring that all people in the city have access to what they need to thrive, then we must create a decision making process that values and supports youth voice and we must be diligent and bold when investing in their lives and the lives of DC residents this year and continuously.

Thank you.

Education Forward DC
Education Forward DC

Every DC student deserves to thrive.