Image: AOPYO co-founder Ronnie Qi delivers a Tai Chi class to Denver area students and educators. Photo Credit: URBN Brands
This sixth edition of the Equitable Futures Innovation Network blog series brings into the spotlight the Apprentice of Peace Youth Organization (AOPYO), whose mission is to “develop students through a whole-person approach by integrating mentoring, enrichments, and career pathway programs.”
The Equitable Futures Innovation Network (EFIN) is a project of the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, focused on fostering career equity in asset-based and identity-affirming ways. This post is the sixth in a series of reflective case studies of organizations embracing race-grounded approaches.
Apprentice of Peace Youth Organization was established in 2013 by Ronnie Harvey and Pos Ryant, two Black men who connected through their passion for Tai Chi and completed a five-year medical Qigong certification together. Pos describes the establishment of AOPYO as ‘divine.’ The philosophy and inspiration of AOPYO is described in Ronnie’s book, The Apprentice of Peace: An Uncommon Dialogue.1 The book and the AOPYO movement is guided by the motto “seek self-peace first,” fostering a dialogue between personal inner work and outwardly building relationships and community. AOPYO initially started by offering Tai Chi in community spaces, and has grown to offer enrichment programs, mentoring, career pathways internships and certification in skilled trades, and a youth council. AOPYO has served over 1,500 youth through community events and established over 17 public schools and detention center partnerships.
Throughout this growth, the organization has retained its commitment to inner peace and embracing the whole person. We draw on their work as examples of bringing the principle of Recognizing the Whole Person to the Race-Grounded Career Advising Framework to practices of Collaborating with, Caring and Relating to youth.
Collaboration with Youth
Central to engaging in collaborative work from an asset-based perspective is recognizing the wisdom youth have to offer, integrating their lived experiences, and allowing their insights to help develop, build, and iterate programming. At AOPYO, as the co-founders moved into community spaces, they recognized this wisdom as a foundation for creating youth and school programming. They asked youth, “What do you want to learn?” It is a seemingly simple question, however, one that is overlooked. Hart’s ladder of youth participation2 suggests it can be tokenistic or manipulative if adults lead activities without explicitly examining what it means to have youth fully participate, or if they ask for input that isn’t acted upon. When youth are engaged in the process of co-creating or co-leading programming, youth can learn to see themselves as leaders3; 4 and develop efficacy in their organization, community, and career field. Additionally, by working side-by-side with adults, youth enhance critical reflection and action.5
AOPYO asked “What do you want to learn?” in earnest. This authenticity manifests in how they have continuously built structures to incorporate youth voice and feedback into their programming. One example is the Youth Advisory Council (YAC), a program within AOPYO. YAC currently works to combat violence by recognizing and addressing mental health. The impetus for YAC emerged from a gathering of youth affected by a violent community interaction and listening to their needs. Initially, YAC started with age-specific divisions. However, shortly after they started, staff from AOPYO held a focus group and asked them what was working and what could be improved. The youth said that they preferred not to be in blended age groups, and maintain an openness to learning from each other beyond age brackets. As a response, YAC adjusted the age group to target young adults. Ultimately, this helped create a space where older youth could share and learn from each other about similar life experiences during life transitions after high school.
Student feedback gathered through individual interactions, focus groups, surveys, and session discussions is brought into organizational strategy planning sessions and directly influences programming through a continuous feedback loop. For example, Andre, the Director of Development, has facilitated focus groups, listened to and adapted programming structures and focus and also brought in his expertise. He explains, “There was some data we were finding with some of our other students. Some of [their] biggest problem is they don’t know how to be alone.” From this, Andre brought in a series of conversations on how to be alone and deal with intrusive thoughts if they appear. Being alone, and being lonely–two different things–are natural human endeavors but are often under-discussed. As part of the activities, the YAC participants created a guide on how to be alone. Other workshop activities have included the intersection of mental health and social justice. Participants gather their learning from each other and have multiple opportunities to sculpt presentations in peer-to-peer workshops.
It is critical that youth feel empowered to make decisions, create initiatives, and voice their opinions, but that does not mean that the adult does not participate. Drawing on years of work with Youth Radio, Chávez and Soep6 call this a pedagogy of collegiality, where youth and adults mutally depend on each other’s skillsets and perspectives to generate original, unique work. Thus, collaboration is not adult-led or youth-led, but instead through mutual trust and work, new creations emerge that could not have been created alone.7
In addition to offering inputs, co-creating, and leading programs, youth have opportunities to intern at AOPYO, with some YAC participants becoming professional staff. The evolution of YAC shows how collaboration, with adults and youth working side-by-side, can create a unique outcome that requires adaptability, deep listening, and respectful engagement of multiple perspectives.
AOPYO started with its commitment to Tai Chi and Qigong, and as it has grown, it has maintained its commitment to promoting inner peace and self-development as essential to being in service to the community. As Pos Ryant, co-founder and executive director, states:
“We really believe in [these practices] and just strive to incorporate it into everything we do… It’s a part of the magic. We believe [it] allows people to kind of put their guards down, if you will, and be able to be in unison and in one accord, and willing to work together…when you’re able to take a moment and breathe and relax and, you know, just kind of get …A moment of clarity, if you will, it’s then you can hear right, you can hear better. You can actually listen and really, you know, contribute to what’s going on.”
Here Pos describes how, by centering mindfulness and care for self and each other, the AOPYO team can move together more intentionally. Although grounded in ancient and ancestral wisdom, this approach runs counter to more pervasive assumptions8 that ask providers to give of themselves until they are emotionally, mentally, or financially empty.
GianCarla Di Laura (GC), the AOPYO Program Coordinator, echoed Pos’s words and how being involved with the organization has helped her re-center herself personally and professionally. GianCarla came to AOPYO during a time of personal turbulence, deep grief, and loss. She said that conversations with Ronnie and engaging in AOPYO philosophy and conversations prompted her to say, “No, my realization is I am going to get better and to get younger, and so I did.” She continued to express how she took steps to take care of herself. And how now “I feel like never before. I have a lot of energy. I love my job…for me, it is not a job. It is facilitating the importance of wellness and how to address mental health issues through art, and to know it is okay not to be okay. I mean, be your best self.”
Excited to learn and bring in her own experiences, GC explains how her growth has also influenced how she approaches her work. As part of her role, she facilitates an 8-12 week comic book creation workshop with partner schools where students create a superhero. In this process, students learn about the work, commitment, visualization, and belief in themselves needed to accomplish their personal goals. They also learn how to manage trials and tribulations and develop skills to navigate difficult moments. As she has worked with AOPYO, GC has shifted her own practices of facilitation along the way. For example, she explains that when she first started in the classroom, she would start by trying to get everyone’s attention with her voice. Now, when she walks into a classroom, she plays music, does a quick one-on-one check-in, or even starts with some breathing exercises. When she starts the class with breathing, the students join in with her and begin to breathe deeply, too. She says it is a more gentle way to start the session. Through her own self-care and experiences, she is able to model the importance of breath and normalize attunement to body.
One way to build relationships with and relate to youth is to create multiple points of entry into the curriculum to draw on their lived experiences, and do so in ways that feel interesting and relevant to their work.
For example, one of Andre’s roles is as a curriculum facilitator for incarcerated youth, in which he seeks to make the curriculum relevant to youth experiences. During the weekly meetings with incarcerated youth, which on average have lasted about four months, Andre leads groups of 4-10 individuals in inner work. He described one class in which the topic of the day was existentialism. To start the conversation, he wrote a series of three questions on the board, typical for any class session. On this day, questions included: Why are we on this planet? Where does it come from? What is your essence? He stated that these questions can help define and find your purpose. After a few minutes of journal writing, Andre incorporated art, including hip-hop and popular media short videos, to continue digging deeper into the curriculum’s themes. The intentionality of connecting the curriculum and what is relevant to the youth allowed for the essence of AOPYO to come to life in the curriculum.
In addition to cultivating a space that honors lived experience, creativity, and curiousity, race-grounded relating is also about who is present in the room and how they show up. Andre spoke about the importance of being a “fly” young, Black man who has ‘the confidence to be yourself in any room, anywhere, be unashamed, unapologetic. And how do you teach that to youth? The thing is, you can’t teach it. You have to create opportunities for them to do it, to live it. You have to model it. You have to find other people who will model it.”
Relating in race-grounded ways also means connecting with the community, being responsive to needs, and ensuring the content is culturally and linguistically accessible. By staying involved through AOPYO and other community organizations, Pos and AOPYO leadership can keep a pulse on the needs and shifts of the community. These partnerships with communities and schools enables them to reach individuals and communities who often might not have access to holistic practices, classes, or programs as readily available. For example, they have integrated their services and outreach into a local farmers market, offering a combination of Zumba and Tai Chi. Additionally, GianCarla has led efforts to translate AOPYO texts, both the Apprentice of Peace book and the curriculum, into Spanish to reach a broader audience. Further, YAC, the above mentioned program, emerged from a moment of violence in the community.
AOPYO is one example of an organization that is centrally recognizing the whole person, supporting and creating change through the vision of inner work, and honoring youth and collective wisdom.
- Harvey, R. (2005) The Apprentice of Peace: An uncommon dialogue. Lulu.com
- Hart, R. A. (1992). Children’s participation: From tokenism to citizenship. Florence, Italy: United Nations Children’s Fund International Child Development Centre.
- Nasir, N.S., Lee, C.D., Pea, R., & McKinney de Royston, M. (Eds.). (2021). Handbook of the Cultural Foundations of Learning. NY: Routledge.
- Nasir, N. (2016). Ed Talk: Designing Learning for Equity. [Video]. American Educational Research Association. https://www.youtube.com/@AeraNet1916
- Hipolito-Delgado, C. P., Stickney, D., Zion, S., & Kirshner, B. (2022). Transformative Student Voice for Sociopolitical Development: Developing Youth of Color as Political Actors. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 32(3), 1098-1108. https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12753
- Chávez and Soep (2005). Youth Radio and the Pedagogy of Collegiality. Harvard Educational Review 75(4): 409-434.
- Rogoff, B. (1994). Developing understanding of the idea of communities of learners. Mind Culture Society, 1, 209-229.
- Shahjahan, R. A. (2014). Being “Lazy” and Slowing Down: Toward Decolonizing Time, Our Body, and Pedagogy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(5): 488–501.
Post by Elizabeth Mendoza
Elizabeth Mendoza’s scholarship intersects a sociocultural approach to learning sciences, critical theories of race, and participatory action research to support educators in developing practices that challenge dominant ideologies and re-imagine spaces of healing and transformation.