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74 Interview: Colorado Educator Talks Co-Creating a School With His Community, Teaching Students Transformative Resistance & How Love Can Help NYC Design Better Schools

By Laura Fay | January 7, 2020

Wisdom Amouzou (left) at a community meeting. (Olivia Jones/Empower Community School)

See previous 74 interviews: Sen. Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms, civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks confronting Elizabeth Warren on charter schools, criminologist Nadine Connell talks about the data behind school shootings, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration and more. The full archive is right here.

Although his title is executive director, Wisdom Amouzou tends to talk about everyone but himself when he describes launching Empower Community School, a charter high school in Aurora, Colorado, that opened in fall 2019 with 120 ninth-graders.

Empower was designed by the community in Aurora; parents, students and educators were involved every step of the way, Amouzou said, from visiting innovative schools to articulating the vision. In a series of meetings over dinner, a community design team “tried to democratize the school founder role” and create a school that offers “authentic education that is led by students, guided by educators and co-created by the community,” he said.

Empower is unique in other ways as well. Students take four years of ethnic studies, and they have built-in time to work on projects to benefit their community. Some students have already started building a community garden behind the school, Amouzou said. The students are diverse as well: 53 percent are Latino, 29 percent are black and 16 percent are white. Almost 30 percent qualify for special education services, well above the Aurora Public Schools district average of 12.2 percent.

Amouzou recently talked to The 74 about his own education in West Africa and the United States, what it was like building a school with his community in Colorado and what advice he has for school design teams in New York City.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: How’s the year going at Empower Community School? 

Amouzou: It is perfectly imperfect. I think there are core things that we’ve got — enrollment, the facility, the teachers — and then we’re trying to make steady improvements until we get the culture right. But so far it feels like we’re off to a good start.

Has there been anything so far that’s surprised you about what it’s like to launch a new school?

I think the most surprising was the shared degree of exhaustion at day one. It’s sort of like you’ve run this marathon and then you think you’ve made progress, but you realize you were just walking up to the starting line. We got warnings about that, but I think it’s different when your body feels that exhaustion. Other than that, I would say the hard work of aligning adults [was a challenge]. I don’t know if “surprising” is the right word, but some folks can show up having done nothing more than just read our website and can take actions that are incredibly aligned to the vision. And then some folks can show up, really have their heart in it, have the skills and just require different conversations, different opportunities to get aligned.

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You co-created Empower with the community in Aurora. How did that get started, and what was that process like?

Well, typically when we tell the story, we first talk about the three folks who came together to design that process. The names are Ariana Villalovos, Olivia Jones and myself. We all met through teaching. In the 2012 to 2013 academic year, Olivia was teaching at a school in Denver called Manual [High School], and Ariana was a student in that course. And essentially our first attempt at collaborating together with student-led learning was Jones bringing her class of high school students to teach a workshop to my seventh-grade students [at Strive Prep Montbello in Denver].

Fast-forward through a lot of things, and in October 2017, we got together at a coffee shop and started talking about what it would look like to co-create the school from the ground up. We all had the background of community organizing and really wanted to ground the work in the tenets of building collective power.

The original purpose of the charter is to create an avenue for students, parents and teachers to build a school for them and by them when they’re not being served by the current system. Basically what that looks like is we broke bread twice a month [for two years], and over dinner we got to designing our ideal school, and we basically tried to democratize the school founder role. So instead of just one person going to school visits, we took parents and students to visit schools in Oakland, San Francisco, Manhattan, Idaho and Boston. Anytime we’d see something innovative, we’d come back, have a discussion, try to come to a consensus.

Fast-forward through a lot of things, and we get the charter approved. We opened this fall with 120 ninth-graders in Aurora, Colorado. The vision of the school was written by a student, his name is Jalil Carter, and it’s “The World Is Ours,” the remixed lyrics from a Nas song [“The World Is Yours”]. I think that lyric explains itself, and the mission of the school is authentic education that is led by students, guided by educators and co-created by the community. That’s the one-minute version.


 

“If folks haven’t experienced the liberation they’re seeking to create, they’re much more likely to recreate the oppressive conditions they’re born out of.”


As you were going through that process of meeting with students and parents, what are some of the things that you think came out of that that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of even as someone who has a lot of experience in education and community organizing?

Quite often I get that question, and I don’t answer it from a space of arrogance; I just answer it from a unique context, which is that I’m not a stranger to my community. I’m actually quite uncommon in charter world: I grew up in Aurora; I went to middle school and high school in Aurora. I have five brothers who went through the Aurora Public School System. I have cousins who went to the Aurora Public School System. There really isn’t much that’s going to surprise me about the APS context, especially when you have a lived experience of the problem. On top of that, in the room were folks that we had deep relationships with. It was literal networks of families. My literal family was in the room, and families that we had relationships with were there. So we’d been in conversations before the design process.

If I had anything that surprised me, it would be less about what the problems are and even what the solutions are. It’s more the depth to which we’ve internalized our lack of power, especially in a system that’s out to actually be predicated on our needs and our voices.

A good example of this is we prioritize having a diversity in voices, but honestly not diversity in alignment. So, from the get-go, understanding that if folks wanted access to one of these “no excuses,” pure college prep models, they have access to that and we’re not trying to recreate that. And yet most of our experiences were in these sorts of colonizing spaces, spaces that aren’t actually grounded in the cultures of our students and our parents and our community.

For example, you have the recently immigrated Mexican mother who still basically wants school to look like what she experienced back in Mexico, where the teacher is the authority figure in the room. Everybody just shuts up and listens to that person. And you would have first- and second-generation students who would push back against that.

And then in the middle you see Ariana translating the meeting in Spanish and English … How do you actually navigate the complexity required to align the community to a set of values? Because that’s the ultimate premise of education, especially of this democratic project. In order to make decisions every day that actually get us to this vision, we’ve got to stay aligned. Otherwise, we’ll be torn. If folks haven’t experienced the liberation they’re seeking to create, they’re much more likely to recreate the oppressive conditions they’re born out of. Navigating that complexity was surprising. It was difficult.

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Why start with high school?

One, the founding educators — this is the experience we have, at the secondary level. Two, understanding the context in the local area. In terms of options, there aren’t a lot of options for quality innovative models at the high school level. In our district, the average high school has between 1,500 to 1,600 students. At full capacity, we’re 480 students. There’s a big difference there.

It’s a fit between what we bring to the table and what’s currently lacking in our context.

What was your own education like?

I’ve experienced a wide range. I was born in Togo, West Africa. I have experience of a literal colonial model of education. Yet, simultaneously, I also arrived in the States [at age 9] two grade levels ahead of my peers. So despite coming from a developing country, I was educated with a better foundation than folks who look like me on this continent. That’s the first experience that shook me. … Regardless of having a terrible teacher [in the U.S. schools], because I learned how to learn at an early age, I never lost that foundation.

America is complicated. Going to Aurora Hills Middle School and Gateway High School, despite going to a diverse school, you see what happens when you start going into honors and AP classes, how the diversity shifts. And you really begin to understand what low expectations means. And, honestly, it’s the little things. Quite often we tell the stories of folks not believing that kids can go to college and all that jazz. For me, it’s low expectations in terms of what kids can actually do and still hit the fundamentally low expectation that the ultimate cause for celebration is if kids do well on standardized exams in reading and math.

Not to be dichotomist, but kids can do that, and actually they’re capable of much more, and that school still is not able to unleash the genius of children.

I think that happens when, for example, you go through all 12 years of schooling and you have one black male teacher, Mr. Richard. And for me, he was my choir teacher. It’s not by accident that he’s the teacher I still talk to to this day, literally at this time last week.

My story is not one of the achievement gap. And I like that, actually. I got to grow up in a context where my genius wasn’t questioned and the genius of my people wasn’t questioned. I was able to unleash that genius at a young age so that even when I entered a very racist system like what we have here in America, I never lost sight of those high expectations. And that carried me through, even though I was surrounded in that context. And then eventually the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to a school like CU Boulder for college and suddenly having a deep understanding of why things are the way that they are.

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How do you think that those experiences affect your work as an educator?

It’s a double-edged sword, especially when you’re opening a school. Empower Community High School is four or five minutes from the high school that I graduated from. That’s not an abstract thing to me. Every day, you work through different memories of what you experienced. It’s deep because simultaneously it’s the passion that fuels somebody to do something as crazy as start a school and oftentimes it requires healing work, especially when you and your family experienced those inequities …

There’s this quote — and I genuinely believe this — the children who are most hurt by the world are the ones who have the biggest potential to change it. And I see it every day in my kids. There is a kid who literally just yesterday had to be driven home from school because they had just gotten evicted and he comes home to find literally years of belongings of something like a three-bedroom house just laid out on the lawn. And just the savagery of a system that can create and recreate such brutality, where this 14-year-old kid is looking at his third-grade little sister and his mother and trying to pick up the belonging as it snows.

It’s the kind of situation that breaks your heart and you genuinely have to look at that kid and think, “Wow. Thank God I never had that experience. But I have to believe that if you find a way to heal from this, you can actually advocate for the economic policies that will lead to this not having to happen again.” And not just economic policies. That’s something that’s intersectional, with the legal side and the family assistance side.

What do you hope that your students take away from their high school experience?

At its most abstract, it’s a general belief that the world is theirs. We don’t say that in a hokey way. Sometimes people laugh when they hear that, but the fact that actually you are capable of anything that you can dream of, and sometimes you have to see the world to actually believe it’s yours. But that you actually walk through the world with that level of confidence, that level of belief in yourself, in your family and in your community [is what we want for the students].

At its most concrete, what grounds our work is a framework of transformative resistance. And the short of it is that students are able to navigate systems of power without losing their true identity. They’re able to navigate these systems without conforming to the logic of inequity. And that, in fact, they have the skills that it takes to sometimes transform these inequitable systems or create new liberatory systems that undo the oppressive conditions that all these problems are born of.

Olivia Jones/Empower Community School

What that looks like for some who don’t speak the language of our framework is, you have the leadership skills and entrepreneurial skills to navigate the economy of 2050 and you have the academic skills to not only access and thrive through college, but to honestly learn how you learn and learn for yourself. Because college is not necessarily the most economical way to learn something. We posit that 75 to 80 percent of our students will go to a four-year university. Some will go directly into a trade and the rest, ideally, would start their own businesses if they had access to capital.

New York City recently announced an initiative in which it’s partnering with XQ and Robin Hood and asking community members to design new schools and redesign existing schools. The city is going to pick some of those and bring them to life. Since you’ve gone through the community co-design process, what advice would you have for people in New York City as they embark on that process? 

The one thing that fueled this from the start to the present is the one thing that I think will get missed as soon as these systems try to really replicate, and it’s love and authentic relationships, specifically love. It’s the fact that people actually show up to a meeting when they feel a deep sense of belonging and the kind of deep, authentic relationships that carry beyond the institutional context. Nothing is more important. Not the damn project plan, not even that charter application, not these gimmicky, random things that people put onto a model to call it “innovative.”

It’s, Do you have a group of folks who are aligned who love each other? And love each other enough to actually carry through the hard journey of sustainably lifting a school from the ground up, especially an innovative model? In fact, there’s nothing else; that’s my only answer to that.

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What about the people who are going to be judging these plans — what do you think are the elements they should be looking for that indicate that a school will be successful?

We’ll get to radical systems the day that bureaucratic systems like departments of education can actually value some of these soft skills enough to measure them. I mean that deeply. Because, there are the really obvious things like, Is there a board that can actually hold school leaders accountable? Does a school leader have the instructional expertise to pull this off? Yada yada yada. And these systems do that very well. They’ll have the 120-point rubric that you have to follow that shows you’re a high-quality model. What they don’t know how to do, what they haven’t been able to do, is find ways to — hell, I wouldn’t even use the word measure, but for the folks you’re talking to — measure some of these intangible skills that actually ground a school community [that aren’t typically included in school applications].

It’s things like humility, things like love, things like decolonization. If you can get the New York [City] Department of Education to actually give a damn about decolonization, yeah, then we might get somewhere. Because unfortunately, what folks want to do, especially in this American context, is ignore the ugly thing that rears its head in every one of its systems — and it’s not more complicated than racism.

Racism, and all of the other -isms that plague every aspect of this society — find a way to actually uproot that, find a way to actually get the folks who are trying to create these innovative models to find the bias and address the bias. That would give me hope.

And even better, if the folks who are selecting it also reflected the folks who are applying.

You’ve been involved in education in a lot of different ways, from your own schooling to being a teacher, to some roles within Teach for America, to now being an executive director at a school. Is there a throughline that ties that all together for you? 

One thing that was always clear to me is that I don’t have the patience to be an intra-preneur. There are some people who can go through the systems and be there for 20 years and find a way to do what they need to do. I’ve never had that patience. I come from a family of entrepreneurs. So when I was 5, I watched my dad start a school in Togo. An entirely different context, but I think it’s not by accident. Everything’s a remix. So it’s not by accident that I saw that and then internalized that level of agency.

The one thing that’s clear for me is, after about the second school that I went to, I realized I did not have the personality, nor the patience, nor even the interest in being in institutions that do harm to folks. For me, that’s the only throughline. You keep going to these different schools, different institutions, and they all would have the same patterns: There aren’t leaders who come from the community who are at the helm. There’s a great disconnect between the folks they’re serving and the folks doing the work. And then when you try to do something about it, the powers that be operate in the old paradigms of power, which is not power with the people but power on the people.

You can call me a millennial, but I got zero interest in that. That’s the only throughline, honestly. And even with this work currently, I have the deep belief that if you stay in the bureaucracy long enough, the bureaucracy always wins. In a way, folks like to think that charters are outside the system. I don’t really feel that outside the system, I’ve got autonomy and freedom to do things, but I’m still beholden to exactly what Gateway High School [a district school] is beholden to, and at the end of the day, until I start seeing policies and legislation that really shift towards this more open liberatory system, I question how long we’ll survive.

In the charter application, you write a lot about true community engagement, education for liberation and other goals for the culture at Empower. How difficult has it been to make sure that you and the school are really bringing those things to life?

We got great advice that folks who try to implement 100 percent of the mission in year one fail 100 percent of the time. … You’re better off making 100 1 percent changes than just going for the full 100 percent on day one. It’s easier to go from good to great than to go from chaos to great. So we took that advice very seriously, and I think that was a wise decision on our team’s part, and we are bearing the fruits of that.

Aside from that, it is a challenge. I think every day about how an institution guards itself from that mission creep, because it’s actually really hard to keep folks from taking actions that aren’t grounded in the old ways of doing things. There’s a lot of unlearning for our students, unlearning for our families, unlearning for our educators, and that’s not easy. It’s a constant, every day, having to protect the boundaries that birthed this baby.

Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to Empower Community High School and The 74

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