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Meet the Indianapolis Youths Sparking Community Change through Bold Leadership

Across the city, Indianapolis youths of color are collectively addressing local issues with the support of our TFA corps members and alumni.

By Lauren Hall

February 6, 2020

Felege Hiywot beautification event

Indianapolis youths of color are taking lead in community spaces to shape the future of our city. With the support of their schools and community organizations, led and staffed by many TFA corps members and alumni, students are championing what matters to them to increase arts access, strengthen civic development, enhance cultural awareness, and more. TFA is committed emboldening our students and centering their voices and power in driving the next generation of progress in our city.

Here are just a few of the ways our young leaders are driving change and speaking up.

Elevating voice through neighborhood meetings, leadership training, and local issues

“I know I’ve succeeded as a leader when other students see me as a resource, and not just as someone with authority over them telling them what to do. That’s a sign of great leadership—students are comfortable to ask for help, share their ideas, and reach out to me.”

Naomi Davis
Purdue University Student
Program Coordinator, Youth Farm Initiative, Felege Hiywot Center

A few years back, high school student Naomi Davis noticed that youths weren’t being actively engaged by their local neighborhoods to provide perspective on local issues. To increase representation of youth voice, she, along with several peers, launched “Real Dreamers Change Community,” or RDCC, a group that participates in town halls and hosts leadership training sessions in partnership with city leaders.

RDCC collaborates most often with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to address issues related to police brutality and gun violence. Naomi explains: “There’s more police involvement in low-income communities and communities of color, so we wanted to build that connection with IMPD—to have them talk about their perspectives and share ours.”

Naomi has found support in her schools, teachers, close-knit family, and mostly Felege Hiywot Center, a youth leadership and community service organization that sponsors RDCC and has cultivated her leadership for the last five years. Today, Naomi is a freshman at Purdue University studying pharmaceutical science. She plans to bring her knowledge back to her community to help people, particularly elders, rely less on medication yet thrive and live long, healthy lives.

Championing social justice through writing, performing, public speaking, and teaching

“I love this city, I feel a great responsibility to my community, and I hope to be a force for positive change. It’s not only about what I can do for my community through my writing, but it’s also about active civic engagement.”

Alyssa Gaines
Student and Inaugural Indianapolis Youth Poet Laureate
Student Leader, VOICES

Born and raised in Indianapolis, Alyssa was named the city’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate, which recognizes outstanding youth poets, through her participation in local organization VOICES, which supports youth creative expression. As a youth leader, Alyssa has started a spoken word poetry club at her high school, conducted workshops at high schools in Indianapolis and Bloomington, and co-led professional development workshops for educators from Lawrence, Warren, Pike, and Center Townships. In her writing, Alyssa addresses the nuances of different social justice issues such as racism and gun violence, as witnessed through her experiences growing up Black on the east side of Indianapolis.

Alyssa led her high school spoken word team to earn third place at the national slam hosted by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts; she earned the only perfect score at this competition and garnered accolades from the current National Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

Increasing Latinx cultural awareness through community and school outreach programs

“Speaking about what I care about gave me the confidence to talk to our principal and tell him why it matters to celebrate Hispanic heritage in our school. If you care about something you’re going to do what it takes…To be a leader is to care not just about yourself and your position, but to care about your pack, your people.”

Michelle
High School Student
Participant, Tu Futuro Program, La Plaza

A second-generation immigrant and the youngest in her family, high school student Michelle was drawn to La Plaza, a local organization that provides services and events to support Latinx youth and families in Indianapolis. Michelle and her peer collaborators are leading a La Plaza-supported initiative to increase Latinx heritage awareness in their school community and curriculum, sharing that increasing awareness of Latinx heritage will “make the school more welcoming, diverse, and inclusive.” Latinx students will be better understood, “rather than just being seen as a percentage at the school.” Michelle and her co-leaders are “making more events and exhibits to celebrate where we came from.” They made posters about Latinx leaders’ contributions, led a meeting with their school’s principal to share their concerns and ideas, and shared their desire to create a class dedicated to learning about their heritage.

Shivani Goyal (Indy ’15), La Plaza’s education specialist, shares: “The ideas were theirs, the action was theirs, the words and the commitment were theirs, and it speaks to the fact that when students are given the opportunity and support needed they will rise and they will take action and speak up for what’s important for them.”

Long-term, Michelle wants to become aerospace or architectural engineer. She plans to continue working closely with La Plaza and other youth leaders to reach her goals. Michelle describes La Plaza as “a very supportive community. They gave me more resources than I thought I could ever have and gave me a lot of hope for my future—that, even though I’m Hispanic, there is more out there. It’s not just me, a little Hispanic girl, alone in the world, but people are out there that care about you want to help you and give you money to go to school.”

“I know I’ve succeeded as a leader when other students see me as a resource, and not just as someone with authority over them telling them what to do.”

Naomi Davis

Student and Founder, Real Dreamers Change Community

Conducting solutions-oriented research and fostering support and engagement for the refugee community

“At school, we mostly do research online, but here [at BACI], we get more personal experience by going out into the community and hearing from people face to face.”

May
High School Student
Researcher, Upward College Program, Burmese American Community Institute

Indianapolis is also home to a growing population of Burmese refugees. 16,000 refugees from Burma have made greater Indianapolis their home, and BACI expects that population to grow to 20,000 over the next five to ten years. These refugees are rebuilding their lives after fleeing from their home country, where they feared persecution for their race, religion or political beliefs.

In addition to receiving support through school-based English language learner programs and Indianapolis Public Schools’s Newcomer Program, which serves refugee and immigrant students in grades 3-9, students are gaining leadership experience through the Burmese American Community Institute (BACI). Burmese youths in BACI’s Upward College Summer Research program are conducting research focused on topics related to issues or concerns for the community; they produce action-based recommendations and policy solutions to address a wide range of challenges and to help the community. Lian Sang, director of BACI’s Upward College Program, explained that students determine the topics, which include political participation, cultural integration, higher education access, college persistence and teen pregnancy.

Additionally, students’ leadership development through the program has helped foster their pursuit of action-oriented opportunities. The program’s student Vice President, Van Nuam Peng, is especially passionate about the environment, co-leading BACI’s work with tree planting in the community. In addition to tackling environmental issues, he regularly volunteers to pack food and clothing for families in need, and provides translating and form completion support at the organization’s job fairs. Sui Len Par, group leader for the political and civic participation group, has led in numerous events and resources, including the MacAurthur Cultural Fair’s Chin room, which compiles history and cultural information about Chin culture, and the International Fashion Show featuring different cultures in Indiana.

 

Take the next step:

Interested in connecting your students with any of these community organizations? Reach out to Lauren Hall.

Lauren Hall is TFA Indy’s manager of corporate and foundation relations. She also serves as director of youth poet laureate, board member, and consultant at VOICES.