The Urban Scholars program came to Houston in 2018 in partnership with the local My Brother’s Keeper chapter, seeking to help youth of color achieve not only academic and career success, but instill a commitment to community service.
Originally founded for Black males, the program now includes young ladies too, and is the signature initiative of the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) which formed in 2011 in Los Angeles. Thus, long before the Summer of George Floyd or even the horrific deaths of Tamir Rice and Travon Martin, the SJLI was fighting for social and educational racial equity, for Black and Brown youth.
Urban Scholars is currently in four HISD schools (Attucks and Clifton middle schools and Sam Houston and Wheatley high school), but hopes to expand.
The Defender recently spoke with Jarett Fields, SJLI’s Director of Educational Equity Programs, about Urban Scholars.
What is the Social Justice Learning Institute?
FIELDS: The social justice learning Institute is a nonprofit that was started in Los Angeles, California by Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza. The work of the SJLI was based on his dissertation at UCLA.
How did the SJLI find its way to Houston?
FIELDS: The SJLI started as a Black Male Youth Academy. One of the things that Dr. Scorza had in mind was really a way to empower communities through education. For him that meant helping young, Black men matriculate through both middle and high school and onto post-secondary success. Today the SJLI has three arms. We empower communities through education, health and policy advocacy.
Tell us about Urban Scholars
FIELDS: The Urban Scholars program which works with 6th – 12th graders, is run just like a normal class. It may be a student’s third, fourth period class. We have a curriculum really designed to engage middle and high school students into college level information, college level discussions, and eventually research on the path to understanding not only what it takes to be a success in a career and in college, but also how to empower their communities, how to be change agents in their communities.
So, it’s not simply an academic enhancement program
FIELDS: Our students really engage in learning about their community for the sake of being positive change in their community. We do want students to be committed to academic excellence. The program in and of itself is not just an academic program, though. A lot of our students will grow through social, emotional learning. A lot of our students will receive wrap-around services and support from both us and partnership with everything from learning how to get driver’s licenses, bus tickets, learning about their community, different organizations. They’ll be encouraged to volunteer. There’ll be exposed, not just to college tours, but they’ll be exposed to career opportunities and a number of things that really engage them not just in terms of doing well in school, but in the community in terms of trying to learn and identify ways that the community can change for the better and how they can be a part of it.
What’s the driving force behind the program?
FIELDS: The Urban Scholars program is funded through the Houston Health Department. We’re one of the My Brother’s Keepers initiatives. In Houston, just like places around the country, we see young Black men who even upon their success sometimes do not necessarily have the types of options that others have because of oppressive factors, because of neighborhood factors. We see numbers that are very concerning in terms of young Black men and their contact with law enforcement, young Black men and their opportunities dealing with employment. What we’ve done in terms of identifying the need here in Houston is think about how we can fit into that, how we can change the trajectory of young Black men, young LatinX men, into becoming change agents, positive folks in their community. And we’re looking to expand to more HISD schools and to enter Ft. Bend ISD.
What attracted you to this initiative?
FIELDS: I absolutely love my job. I love working with young kids. I love working with young men. I’m by trade, a historian and someone who’s worked in college access programs. I’ve worked as an assistant principal before and what I get to do at the Social Justice Learning Institute in terms of inspiring young men to build relationships, inspiring school leaders and partners to really work with our program, to create a trajectory for success that we just have not seen. And that is not common. And for me, the inspiration and the fire from my work comes from believing that our program not only can have a specific impact on the city of Houston, but that the young men and the young ladies that we work with will come back and be the leaders of this city. That’s why I do this work.
Do you have any program success stories that come to mind immediately?
FIELDS: Definitely. One of our students, a young man who just graduated from Wheatley High School, Toderick Hollis. He’s going to Lamar University in the fall. This young man played basketball, just a really great student at Phyllis Wheatley. Two days before their graduation, we came to visit his school, gave him and other Urban Scholars participants gift baskets. Over the summer, he was going to sit on a panel for our current seniors to help them understand what was it like for him going through school, applying for schools. So, on the day that he sat on the panel, we surprised him with a gift that blew his mind. We have partnerships with different organizations. One of those partnerships is Nike and surprised him with a pair of Air Jordan Concord 11s after he had given this presentation about how hard he had worked. His mother was in tears. And after that presentation, he came up to me and said, “When I graduate from college, I want to come back and work for the Urban Scholars program.”
How can people support the program?
FIELDS: The first thing they can do is go to SJLI.org, our website, and they’ll find a number of different ways. One, you can donate money. For example, during Winter Storm Uri, one of the things that we did was make phone calls to all of our students, offered a lot of our families in the program gift cards to grocery stores. So, you can donate as an individual. You can volunteer. We had a summer program we just finished, where we’re looking for people who can expose our students to career opportunities, apprenticeships, larger community networks. Also, if you’re a nonprofit, we definitely look at organizations whose mission align with ours so we can leverage some of the skills, some of the access to information and the expertise of organizations who have services that we may not be able to offer our students. We also looking for advisory board members.Apple launches Today at Apple Creative Studios to provide opportunities to young creatives
Apple today announced Today at Apple Creative Studios, a global initiative that will provide career-building mentorship, professional industry skills training, creative resources, and access to Apple’s full product lineup of iPhone, iPad, and Mac to underrepresented communities across the globe. Creative Studios will launch first in Los Angeles and Beijing, followed by Bangkok, London, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. later this year. In each city, Apple will work hand-in-hand with nonprofit community organizations to connect youth with mentors and established artists.
An examination of how a museum exhibition that told the stories of HIV-positive people around the world through photographs they took of their daily lives affected people’s attitudes about HIV. An assessment of the effectiveness of a Los Angeles-area non-profit as it tries to empower Black and Latina girls to enact social change through research, training and community mobilization.
They were just two topics that UCLA students presented at Undergraduate Research Week, the largest undergraduate conference on campus. The conference was held virtually for the second consecutive year at the end of May. The event is produced by the undergraduate research centers in collaboration with UCLA Library, the division of undergraduate education and alumni affairs, and this year featured nearly 800 students who presented research posters, gave prerecorded talks about their projects, and participated in live presentation sessions.
The studies of the impact of the Fowler Museum at UCLA’s presentation of “Through Positive Eyes” and the Social Justice Learning Institute’s efforts in Inglewood were part of a new showcase for community-engaged and social justice research this year. Thirty-eight students presented their original research projects in live and prerecorded presentations as part of the community engagement and social justice showcase.
“UCLA students are doing research with community partners, through academic departments and the Center for Community Engagement, which results in a valuable co-creation of knowledge between students and community partners,” said Whitney Arnold, director of the Undergraduate Research Center–Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Arnold said that the event organizers wanted to leverage the work students are already doing with community partners and social justice.
“Many UCLA students’ research projects focus on social justice,” Arnold said, “and we wanted to highlight student projects and voices that identify and research social inequities and also propose ideas for change.”
In community-engaged research, students work with partners from local community organizations such as nonprofits to conduct research that will be helpful to the organization and the people they serve.
Senior world arts and cultures and political science major Karina Zysman worked with the UCLA Art and Global Health Center to research “Through Positive Eyes.” The exhibit ran from August 2019 through February 2020 with the intention of destigmatizing HIV and AIDS by providing a humanizing look at people living with the disease.
Zysman studied the comments people wrote down after viewing the exhibit to determine what kind of impact the exhibit had on them. She found that people felt compassion and a common humanity toward the individuals in the exhibit, demonstrating how powerful the arts can be in inspiring empathy.
“The emerging findings show this cathartic process, where people are able to relate and some sort of preconceived HIV-related stigma that they might have had is starting to decrease,” she said. “We can leverage the arts and use the community and provide a space for them to amplify their own voices in the research that’s emerging.”
Zysman said that community-engaged research should be the model for most research.
“This is inviting the community to be active participants in the research that’s emerging about themselves. It’s removing that power dynamic that exists in research,” Zysman said. “It’s removing the sterility that exists in research, and instead it’s replacing it with humanity.”
At the showcase, every student from the community engagement and social change minor capstone research course presented his or her research. The two-quarter course was taught by Bemmy Maharramli, associate director of strategic initiatives at the Center for Community Engagement. Working with community organizations for two quarters on a research project gives students valuable professional experience, Maharramli said, such as participating in strategy sessions, learning to communicate professionally with colleagues, and listening to their needs.
One of Maharramli’s students was senior world arts and cultures major Hanna Young, who worked with the Social Justice Learning Institute in Inglewood. (Young also co-authored the Through Positive Eyes research project with Zysman). The institute, which was founded by alumnus D’Artagnan Scorza, is looking to expand its programming to support young women of color in addition to men, so Young did an analysis of other female empowerment programs, researched mental health interventions for women of color, and developed interview questions for engaging with community members.
Young said her goal was not to tell the people at the institute what steps they should take, but rather listen to the perspectives of the community members about what they want and provide staff the information to make their own decisions about what would work best for them.
“Central to this research is making sure that community members are asserting themselves, engaging with personal agency and deciding what would suit them best,” Young said. “The success of this kind of program really comes from, are the community members eager and participating in it? Ultimately, they make that decision, not me.”
When we study today’s most critical issues, from global health to climate change, research needs to be in partnership with the communities most affected, Maharramli and the students said.
“To have more effective solutions to these challenges we have to be in conversation with the people who are most impacted,” Maharramli said. “That’s how we’ll contribute as a university to the most innovative and effective solutions.”Gardens Project in Inglewood Helps Promote Healthy Eating!
INGLEWOOD — The Social Justice Learning Institute has helped to install 100 gardens to make fresh food more available.
“100 Seeds of Change was an idea to build 100 Gardens in Inglewood and the surrounding area,” said Nicole Steele, the programs manager who came up with the idea. “Just in the idea that if we could build 100 gardens, if we got 100 little sparks lit, then maybe that could set ablaze to this kind of healthy eating, active living lifestyle in our city.”
They met that goal about two years ago by building gardens in schools, partnering with homeowners, and by building community gardens including the Queen Park Learning Garden in Inglewood.
“When we installed Queen Park, we wanted to make sure that it was a place where people could come and learn that they could grow food themselves,” Steele said.
“More importantly than just giving people food, we have to educate people and give them the experience to understand and learn where food comes from and how food is grown,” said volunteer gardener Vern Nishina.
The Queen Park Learning Garden welcomes any and everyone to come and harvest and participate in the upkeep of the garden, all for free. The Social Justice Learning Institute provides seeds and plants and volunteers also donate produce of their own.
“I feel like it’s important to have good community gardens within our community in order to provide healthy vegetables, fruits and natural herbs,” said Inglewood resident and volunteer gardener Jamelle Fortuné Turner.
“It probably seems like something small but it sets an example for children and it provides a hub for older people to come and just be amongst nature and amongst people that they can talk to,” Steele said.
Due to COVID, the park and garden area had been closed for some time, but Queen Park Learning Garden is now back open and available to the community 24/7. You’ll find Steele in the garden on Tuesday mornings and some weekend days or evenings.
“Not just because of COVID, but there’s a lot going on in the world, right?” said Steele. “We need to be able to be among the community in a safe place and I thought that opening this park back up would be a great way to do that.”
“Inglewood is a great community to live in and to be a part of,” Fortuné Turner said. “I feel like community gardens really capture the essence of how community shows up, what community is and how to sustain the community.”
The Queen Park Learning Garden is located at 652 E. Queen St. Inglewood, CA 90301.