"We believe that if young people are the primary stakeholders of our work then they can and should be the primary decision-makers within the organization."
By Patricia Daddona PBN Staff Writer
Adeola Oredola is the executive director of Youth In Action, a youth-led nonprofit in Providence that’s all about young people—their capacity to lead, their natural ability to innovate, and their desire for positive change. Like the youth she serves, Oredola grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Providence. She attended Providence public schools, then Brown University, where she graduated in 2002 with a Bachelor’s degree in an independent major covering public and private sector organizations.
At the age of 22, she was the youngest person ever to serve on the Providence School Board, where for three years she worked to ensure that both youth and community members have a stronger voice in school policy initiatives. She was also a member of Leadership RI in 2009 and has served as a board member at AS220 and the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. She was awarded the 2011 Rhode Island Foundation Fellowship and received the Women of Achievement Award in 2012. Now 32, Oredola serves as a board member with the Providence Plan.
PBN: What is the overriding issue that Providence youth struggle with today and how does your organization address it?
OREDOLA: Urban education and poverty are the big issues that link to EVERYTHING our young people are facing right now. As a capital city, Providence rightfully boasts a thriving culture of local art, restaurants, and music but continues to struggle with providing adequate opportunities and resources for its future generation—particularly low-income youth. We all know that the success of our young people is critical to the strength and vibrancy of our communities in the future, but there’s endless local data showing that youth in urban communities are hardest hit by the economic and educational challenges that the city faces.
At Youth In Action, we believe that young people are best positioned to change that reality. From our beginning, youth have played key leadership roles at every level of the organization, making up the majority of YIA’s board of directors and running all of our community programs.
To address local issues in urban education and poverty, YIA youth currently lead an education initiative called Students Constructing Classrooms and engage in a work readiness program designed to help them reach higher education and break cycles of poverty.
I deeply believe that young people are every community’s best problem solvers. In fact, it’s critical for young people to be at the center of change in every community if we’re ever going to see that better world we all know is possible.
In October, we’re opening up Youth In Action’s building for a series of conversations called “Big Room, Big Talk,” which will be an opportunity to gather over food and have the kind of deep, dynamic dialogue that leads to change. All are welcome. To join us, contact Lindsay@youthinactionRI.org.
PBN: In your 2012 online video “The Marshmallow Towers," subtitled, "What if students were the teachers?" youth and teachers play a game that serves as a metaphor for a “broken system.” Did this exercise foster a better relationship between students and teachers, and if so how?
OREDOLA: “Marshmallow Towers” was produced by YIA’s Next Generation Media Team, but it features our new Students Constructing Classrooms Initiative. Through the initiative, university teacher training programs partner with YIA allowing us to support urban teachers to master the evidence-based practice of student-centered learning and bring YIA’s unique model of youth empowerment into their classrooms. Building stronger relationships between students and teachers is absolutely part of our goal. This initiative has allowed students and teachers to break down some of the barriers that sometimes exist between them in urban classrooms.
For more than 15 years, Youth In Action has supported more than 1,400 Providence youth to graduate from high school—college and workforce ready. At least 98 percent of our youth leaders move on to higher education each year despite our city's 65 percent graduation rate. Youth In Action's model is based on student-centered learning, which is proven to help low-income youth succeed at higher levels, but unfortunately is not commonly practiced in Rhode Island urban schools.
The Students Constructing Classrooms Initiative makes YIA’s model easily accessible to teachers working with low-income students. We are able to provide them with professional development through local university partners. Educators learn how to take a more dynamic approach to supporting their students by learning new communication and youth development tools, and by engaging their students as leaders in the classroom.
So far we have led professional development sessions for over 200 urban teachers. Business planning has allowed us to develop an earned income strategy as well as seek out donations and foundation support for the initiative. We have also been able to establish solid relationships with key institutional partners in the education world: RI College, Roger Williams University, Providence College, the Providence Public School Department, and the R.I. Department of Education. We are all working together to decrease dropout rates, increase student achievement, and strengthen student engagement in our urban schools.
PBN: As the youngest person ever to serve on the Providence School Board, what did your own youth provide in terms of political benefits and calls to action, and what were some of the drawbacks?
OREDOLA: Serving on the Providence School Board was a very interesting experience. Most other people on the board were between 45-75 years old. But I actually felt more prepared to be governing our school system because of my age. Unlike most people on the board, I had some governance experience from a few non-profit board positions I held as a teenager. I was also a recent graduate of Providence public schools, and was therefore very clear about how our policies were playing out at the school and classroom levels – a perspective that I believe is critical for good policy making in the education world. I was also already working at Youth In Action, a place where youth serve as the majority of our board of directors by design.
We believe that if young people are the primary stakeholders of our work then they can and should be the primary decision-makers within the organization. The only drawbacks I can remember during my time on the school board was being too optimistic about what I could accomplish in a three-year term and finding it difficult to tolerate the politics and bureaucracy of our system (not sure those are bad things though).
To create a new narrative in Providence many of us are committing to building our adult lives here; publicly challenging perceptions of young people as passive consumers of their environment; and embracing innovative strategies that support youth as co-constructors and powerful agents for change. What’s slowly emerging is a dynamic youth community with knowledge about the systemic challenges it faces, and the ability to mobilize the city to drastically shift power, policy, and practice.
What would our cities look like if we all started to truly see youth as powerful assets instead of problems? As a teenager I grew up in Providence around adults who saw my potential to be a strong force in my community and supported me to follow that path. As an adult, I partner with youth throughout the city, building their potential to bring about social justice because I see it as the way for us to heal our city. In Providence and other small pockets across the country young people are taking the lead to fix what's broken—successfully tackling issues in community health, the justice system, and education. I’m very proud to be a part of this national effort.
PBN: How are social media and multi-media like video helping you engage youth?
OREDOLA: Our Next Generation Media program excites our youth members’ passion for technology as they learn to use professional video equipment, digital cameras, graphic arts software, and computers as tools to document and solve community issues that they care about as well as educate others.
In an international context where STEM education is a key 21st-century skill set in demand, this program has been extremely successful at providing youth with valuable experience with media literacy and production, design, communication, civic engagement, and leadership development.
Our media work is exciting and relevant to youth because they are the creators. The most recent videos youth created were about teenage depression, the local graffiti and arts community, and building love for our city. The video’s youth produce are a clear platform for voices that are not often heard, a vehicle for researching and analyzing complex issues, and a way to support young people to master a valuable skill set they can carry long into the future.
Our real secret for engaging youth is a warm and welcoming building and an energetic program staff. In 2001 YIA youth leaders bought and renovated our 4-story building. After raising half a million dollars, working with architects, and shedding lots of sweat and tears, we have a youth center in the heart of South Providence where YIA’s programs are needed most. In many ways, we see this building of ours as a second home, a studio, and a laboratory where we’re beginning to create that better world we know is possible. Every room in our building is full of energy and activity after school, so come visit us at 672 Broad St. in Providence to see our programs in action.
PBN: It has been a while (2009) since Next Generation Media's first project led to the creation of a website to inform the public about a crisis in the public transportation system in Rhode Island. Do you have any new projects in the works? If so, what are they?
OREDOLA: Low-income students continue to struggle with public transportation in Providence, one of only two districts in the state without yellow buses for its middle and high school students. Next Generation Media’s first video project in 2009 began the local dialogue that recently brought leaders at RIPTA and the Providence School Department together to do some problem solving. These conversations led to a $300,000 investment in transportation for Providence students in 2012. We still have a long way to go on this issue, but the productive dialogue continues.
Each video Next Generation Media produces targets key issues young people are facing in our state – as well as possible solutions. For example, our community health and media teams are collaborating right now to produce a documentary about the critical role boys can and should play in the fight to end domestic violence. This project stems from our work with the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and their amazing Ten Men Campaign, which is helping our state address the issue of domestic violence from the male perspective.