Image: Taken at YAASPA’s inaugural Black Mental Health and Wellness Summit
This fifth edition of the Equitable Futures Innovation Network blog series brings into the spotlight the Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism (YAASPA). YAASPA was born out of a desire for change, fueled by frustration at conversations where race was ignored or bypassed within youth-centered civic engagement programs. YAASPA is based upon a desire to have truth-telling, race-related conversations in ways that were productive and illuminated possibility. Dr. Janiece Mackey — current YAASPA CEO and an EFIN Fellow — and her husband Ernest Mackey co-founded YAASPA in 2010. Since then, YAASPA has grown into a community space that honors youth wisdom, builds academic and career self-efficacy, self-awareness of racial identity development, civic literacy and civic engagement through courses on civic engagement, paid internships and fellowships, summer programming, and workforce development.
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 fifth in a series of reflective case studies of partnerships between EFIN researchers and organizational leaders.
In this post, we highlight how YAASPA exemplifies the principle of Collective Power in the Race-Grounded Career Advising Framework and practices of Guiding and Collaborating with youth.
Framing: YAASPA Provides Avenues for Guidance and Collaboration for Collective Power
In the movie A Bugs Life, a group of crickets gather to talk about how ‘one ant’ who stood up to the crickets really could not do anything to harm them. The group of crickets laughed at the size of an ant. The cricket leader joins along and says, you’re right; it is just one ant. He then grabs a grain—insinuating the grain is the size of an ant—and proceeds to throw it at one of cricket followers. The crickets laughed at the “puny” size of the grain representing the ant that could not harm them. The cricket leader then drops a mountain of grains onto the Crickets and buries them, demonstrating the power of all of ants if they act together. The leader warns that one ant alone is small, but if one ant stands up, “then they all might stand up to us.” This, he warns, can take away the crickets’ way of living. This scene demonstrating importance of collective power was the point of conversation for an activity in the introduction to social justice class taught at a school partnership sight led by Tashan, Educator and Youth Council Liaison of YAASPA, who states:
“The power of the collective is that our communities have always been community centered in the sense that we’ve always supported each other. .. systems [of power] rely on us treating each other as strangers, as after thoughts so that it can thrive off of us ignoring each other or treating each other as enemies…For a lot of our communities, especially communities of racialized groups and marginalized communities, we have always lived a collective lifestyle because we have always had to have each other’s backs to make sure that we thrive. So for me, it’s really important that within the YAASPA ecosystem, we let [youth] know that we’re here for you. And we want to make sure that your voice is seen and honored because we cannot create change without y’all. And it’s intergenerational.”
The essence of collective power is carried across the organization, programming, and its vision to support increased representation of BIPOC youth in civic engagement. A sense of collective power can be felt, for example, in the Youth Abolitionists Council, which works with youth and community members to decrease the presence of police in public schools and advocates for reallocating funds to provide healthy alternatives to punitive discipline policies, and other resources to meet the needs of youth. Collective power is also embedded across its many programs, including Summer of Activism, Social Sciences and Policy Institutes, or Civic Engagement in Community and Career Courses that center the study of social sciences, inquiry, and advocacy to work toward involvement of BIPOC youth in social science career pathways. Below are examples of approaches and practices that are implemented within the organization.
YAASPA engages with collective power and career equity through leadership development. One program specifically created to help youth explore social sciences careers is the Y Incubator. The Y Incubator collaborates with industry partners to create paid internships and fellowships for youth to attain work-based learning experiences. To date, the partnerships have paved an education, public administration, and public health-focused pathway. For example, Chanelle Jones Ahmed, a Public Health Fellow with YAASPA works as a youth consultant with Partners for Children’s Mental Health. Jose Flores, who has worked with YAASPA since 2018 and was previously a Public Health Fellow, is now working as a Family Resource Navigator. Another Fellow, Onyx Oats, has been with YAASPA since she was in middle school.
The persistent involvement across programs and over time is a defining aspect of YAASPA. This longevity is partly due to the willingness of YAASPA to grow and listen to student needs. YAASPA responds and pivots to create programming and layers of leadership that youth can grow into. For example, Chelsea Situmeang, the Director of Youth Development, started as a YAASPA Intern, then Youth Council Liaison, Educator, and Youth Development Manager before moving into her current role.
During the interview with Chelsea, she recollects her role as a YAASPA Intern in college and one crucial moment for her growth. Dr. Mackey could not make the meeting and asked Chelsea to facilitate. Chelsea recalls, “[Dr. Mackey] said ‘Hey, I have confidence in you that you can facilitate the meeting… Just keep doing what you’re doing. I think it is lovely. You take absolutely meticulous notes.” Chelsea then giggled and said, ” I remembered that word because I had never heard it before, and how she ‘ended up just basically mimicking what Dr. Mackey did whenever I observed her…in that space.”
What shines through this story is the trust within the space of an emerging leader. At the moment, Chelsea was unsure if she was ready for the role, but she trusted Dr. Mackey, and Dr. Mackey trusted Chelsea would be able to fulfill this role based on what she had observed of her work. This cultivated a space where Chelsea could try on a new identity as a leader.1 This quick, but meaningful, interaction illuminates the interconnectedness of learning and identity. Nasir and colleagues2 describe that identity formation is cultivated over a series of interactions where youth learn to see themselves as leaders, or their emerging identity (e.g. musicians, mathematicians, college-ready, etc.). Thus, how programs create opportunities for youth to see themselves in leadership roles or in spaces where they can try on new identities is critical. Within YAASPA, the ability to have youth see themselves as leaders, change-makers, and contributors to their community is seen as vital to their growth.
Collaboration Toward Collective Power
With a deep understanding of collective power, YAASPA has intentionally fostered community partnerships to create opportunities for youth. As mentioned above, the Y Incubator works with community and industry partners to develop paid internships and fellowship. Additionally, for the success of their youth councils, YAASPA has partnered with school districts and other community organizations. Most recently, YAASPA created the ABC Collective which is a collective of community organizations advocating for repurposing a closed school building to allow for in-person services for multiple organizations. This example of collaboration demonstrates the potential of collective power and working with a spirit of abundance. To believe that collectively each organization can benefit begins to move away from silos, which can occur due to lack of resources or competition for resources. The essence of collective power flows into YAASPA’s myriad of partnerships.
Partnership work exemplifies relational work essential for building collective power. Another way YAASPA exemplifies relating and connecting is positioning youth explicitly as wisdom holders. In the social justice class taught by Tashan, the youth helped co-construct the class assignments and material. He states that on the first day of class, he held space for the class to discuss what the course was and what it was not. It was not a space where he would talk for an hour, and they would just listen. Instead, the class is “a space where we collaborate. It’s a space where we’re willing to grow with each other…so in order for that to work, we need to make sure that we’re building a classroom environment where every voice is being empowered and honored.” With that foundation, the group started to develop community guidelines. To further facilitate teamwork, Tashan asked for three volunteers: someone to type discussion notes for community guidelines, someone willing to call for votes, and another willing to count the votes. This distribution of labor allowed for Tashan to continue to facilitate and also allowed for new opportunities for students to see themselves reflected in the process, thus setting a tone that this class was indeed about collaboration.
Tashan recognized that class co-creation can be new to some students. In times when students would pause—possibly because being asked to imagine school differently is not very common in classrooms—he would throw out some ideas that were counter to what he wanted to see. He states, “I was like, all right, so how y’all feel about weekly essays, two-page essays on every chapter that you read, and everybody’s like, no, no, no, no, no, and I was like, all right, so throw some ideas at me then, because if y’all don’t give me no ideas, I’m gonna just assume whatever.” From this conversation, the students eventually suggested doing Socratic Seminars, where students would rotate facilitating sessions. The students who did not facilitate were responsible for doing personalized chapter summaries. They all agreed the chapter summaries had to come from their hearts and could not be something ‘like “you get off of Google or chat GPT.” To start the series, Tashan modeled a Socratic Seminar where students work together to facilitate, engage, and learn with and from one another. As he reflected on the class, he stated, “[I am] leaning on them to see how they want to engage with their thoughts and how they want to engage with a youth village.”
Throughout the design process, Tashan made multiple moves to support trust and an authentic and open-ended learning environment. This included providing prompts to move the discussion toward co-creation. He also attended to participant dynamics through, for example, the distribution of labor3 where students were note-taking and counting votes. Further, he also modeled what might be beyond students’ expertise or comfort, including facilitating a Socratic Seminar. Race-grounded relationship building involves knowing students hold wisdom and creating opportunities and structures for youth to imagine and act on new possibilities.
Another way collective power and collaboration shine through YAASPA’s program design, and contribute to the cultivation of this culture of leadership, is through inquiry, specifically Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR). YPAR positions adults as guides partnering with youth rather than “serving” youth. Foundational to the social sciences is using research to support and advocate for change. Thus, the use of inquiry can leverage youth wisdom and lived experiences, provide insight into problems, solutions, and advocacy, as well as help youth see themselves as change-makers, leaders, and researchers. YAASPA utilizes YPAR within the youth coalitions led by student researchers who are alumni in college. Some of the youth coalitions have explored, for example, the history curriculum in the school district, its tendency to be Eurocentric, and how it can be more inclusive. Another youth coalition sought to understand more deeply the experiences of educators of color, why they leave, and how school administrators can better support them. This work has moved outside of schools as well. Another iteration of YPAR was a youth coalition that conducted research on the school to prison nexus. The student researchers drew on literature that already exists around how police presence in school can be a detriment to the safety of students, in particular students of color and students with dis/abilties. The youth council worked to explore other opportunities to advocate for safety in schools which included diverting resources to mental health as well as learning more about ways to have an abolitionist orientation. The student researchers are creating a handbook that, for example, breaks down important terms in accessible ways.
Collective power through collaboration with other organizations as well as with youth is built into the structures, approaches, and practices of YAASPA. With this foundation, they are able to guide students to explore multiple career paths, and understand how social sciences can both be a passion and also provide economic stability.
- Jurow, A.S. (2005) Shifting engagements in figured worlds: Middle school mathematics students’ participation in an architectural design project. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(1), 35-67.
- Nasir, N.S., Lee, C.D., Pea, R., & McKinney de Royston, M. (Eds.). (2021). Handbook of the Cultural Foundations of Learning. NY: Routledge.
- Gutiérrez, K., & Jurow, A.S. (2016). Social design experiments: Toward equity by design, The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 1-34.
- Gutiérrez, K. D., Hunter, S., & Arzubiaga, A. (2009). Re-Mediating the university. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4(1) 1-23.
- Nasir, N. (2016). Ed Talk: Designing Learning for Equity. [Video]. American Educational Research Association. https://www.youtube.com/@AeraNet1916
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.