They are giving voices to Miami students to help them face the world — and change it

Christina Mayo
·9 min read

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

Philosopher Alan Watts, who died in 1973, never knew the COVID-19 pandemic, but he did understand the need for change in how we learn and how we think.

For 21 years, leaders at Power U Center for Social Change have worked to help Black and Brown youth become advocates who fight for safe and supportive schools.

“We do districtwide work with students,” said Niki Franco, Power U Civic Engagement Organizer. The nonprofit started in Overtown and is now located in Liberty City.

Its outreach involves students from under-resourced schools and economically disadvantaged communities. Power U teaches them how to be civically engaged leaders who can give voice to issues that today’s young people face.

“I guess you could say we’re going through growing pains right now with COVID asking us to flex our muscles a bit more,” Franco said.

At P.S. 305, another diverse Miami nonprofit, leaders involve students, teachers and parents who work collaboratively. Its mission is “to empower and elevate parent voice through learning and advocacy to obliterate educational opportunity gaps.”

“What we do is work with families so students in our communities can learn and have choice-filled lives,” said Mina Hosseini, executive director of P.S. 305.

“We organize with parents. Power U organizes with students. They’re great,” she said.

This year, both nonprofits are finding challenges unlike any other. And both are seeking donations through Give Miami Day 2020.

“In COVID, one benefit we’ve had is that young people are so adaptable,” Franco said. “When we switched to Zoom it was pretty easy for us technically. We work with students at iTech in Little Haiti. They had the skills to switch us to remote meetings.”

Both groups have a focus on attending Miami-Dade County Public Schools School Board meetings. The students at Power U attend, and the parents with P.S. 305 attend. All are seeking information on programs that comprise public school education in the county.

Power U’s student members are in high school, 13 to 18 years old, and there is an equal split of young women and men who are involved, Franco said.

“What drives us are young people. They are excited about knocking on doors, and learning. They were campaigning early this year,” she said. “They’re excited about the voting process, and when we attend School Board meetings we often hear, ‘Oh, wow. This is really the system?’ ”

But attending meetings is difficult.

“Historically, we would go with families to the School Board meetings,” P.S. 305’s Hosseini said. “The meetings are not very accessible for families because of the times and days they are held. So we also provide School Board summaries for families.”

Tech alumni Marc Lamour and Thomas Bryant discuss Power U issues at a workshop held before the nonprofit had to switch to remote learning in the pandemic.
Tech alumni Marc Lamour and Thomas Bryant discuss Power U issues at a workshop held before the nonprofit had to switch to remote learning in the pandemic.

Popular programs, but facing challenges

A silver lining because of COVID is that membership is increasing in both advocacy groups, mostly by word of mouth. But Franco said they are experiencing greater problems.

“Right now, we’re dealing with issues involving unemployment. And some members have even had to move out of Miami with their families because it’s so expensive,” she said.

Franco, a Miami native who writes poetry, is passionate about helping young people grow in confidence to have a willingness to participate in advocacy work. She said Power U also deals with increased student mental health challenges.

“We’ve worked with nurses, social workers. We’re seeing a decline in those in schools,” she said. “We learn from the students that they don’t have access to the support systems they need. We’ve been to so many schools of all socioeconomic backgrounds and some students say they have more access to talk to a guard at school than a nurse or social worker.”

“A student will say, ‘I’m feeling really anxious right now,’ and it’s hard to find someone at school to talk to. But they’ve had really good ideas including one to transform a classroom that’s not being used into a ‘decompress room’ where there are essential oil diffusers, comfy chairs, and plants,” Franco said.

Power U staff members also have conversations with teachers about what they see in the classroom, and the real issues there.

Learning to be leaders

“Through various workshops and skill building activities, our youth members learn about the history of community organizing and the civil rights movement. They are then developed into young leaders who practice public speaking and who can facilitate meetings in the community, speak on panels, and ultimately become champions for their schools and communities,” Franco said.

James P Lopez Jr., executive director at Power U, said his group is working with the University of Miami’s School of Education.

“Often graduate students work with our youth to conduct youth participatory action research on issues our members care about. We are currently in the process of putting together a report that will highlight how students see gender dynamics and issues within their schools. They also train youth on how to conduct survey processes,” Lopez said.

“We also currently have a law student from UM who is helping build stronger community actions teams in the southern part of the county in order to have community residents better address issues like gun violence and lack of public transportation.”

While P.S. 305, established in 2018 to work with teachers in grades K-12, has also been able to pivot through the pandemic, the group is now evaluating its long-term vision.

Current campaigns at P.S. 305 involve educating parents and teachers about “Survival Brain” vs. “Learning Brain,” said Hosseini, a Miami native and graduate of Miami Killian Senior High and Florida International University. She is a passionate advocate for children and also serves as a Guardian ad Litem volunteer for the 11th Judicial Circuit.

“Survival Brain is activated when adults interact with children through compliance rather than connection. A feeling of safety, trust and authentic relationships is necessary to foster a Learning Brain environment. When children or adults are in Survival Brain mode, the brain is literally physically incapable of learning effectively,” Hosseini said.

Another P.S. 305 project is orienting educators in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL).

“SEL is a socially constructed set of mindsets, competencies and dispositions that allows us to effectively navigate the world and interact with ourselves and others in healthy ways by managing emotions, feeling empathy, goal setting, sustaining relationships,” she said.

P.S. 305 leaders hope to develop SEL through modeling and practice in real life contexts to improve and expand social and emotional learning support in Miami-Dade schools.

“Parents want to be a part of the process and our reach is greater now in terms of geography,” Hosseini said. They are P.S. 305’s Parent Leaders. The involved teachers are called Teacher Warriors.

“It’s so important now especially from the standpoint of learning losses,” Hosseini said.

She said she also sees potentially difficult mental health issues in youth as a result of COVID-related changes to education.

“If we don’t have parents and teachers advocating for these kids there are challenges ahead. This requires uplifting the voice of families who already are leaders,” Hosseini said. “We are seeking to achieve holistic centering for students.

“What we have to ask now, because of COVID, is, ‘What do we want to take away from this?’ We should take some time to pause. There shouldn’t be a rush to return to a school building,” she said. “We need to reflect and support families who want to engage with their students’ schools.”

P.S. 305 and its parents meet with educators and administrators regularly through Zoom.

“We envision a Miami where our children grow up to be leaders that use the skills and competencies honed by our education system — and the collective experiences of our people — to create a better future for our city,” is a P.S. 305 website mission statement.

One of those Miami students is Jackie Escudero, a sophomore at iTech and a Power U youth leader, who said the group “has changed my perspective with the school system and the justice system.

“Power U has changed me and challenged me mentally. I didn’t know my purpose in this life until I encountered Power U. I always liked to help people and Power U gave me the opportunity not only to help others, but create a change within my community. I’ll forever be grateful and encourage youth to be a part of Power U. Together, we can make a change and it’ll help us grow into persons we never thought we would grow up to be.”

P.S. 305 members have a Zoom research meeting with representatives of the Florida Department of Education.
P.S. 305 members have a Zoom research meeting with representatives of the Florida Department of Education.

‘Rooted in values’

Franco said the nonprofit is staying entirely remote for now, but is still very active. Leaders are advocating for more mental health and trust counselors in schools, increased youth programming for school and community partnerships, and an increase in teachers’ pay and support.

“We’re an organization rooted in values. We’ve been having real conversations about our family members being exposed. We want to make sure Power U is safe for our members and for their families,” Franco said.

“We’re kind of navigating the waters as they come. It’s been a wild year and a strange time.

“If it weren’t for organizations like Power U, many members in our community would probably never be involved. It creates so many openings for young people to learn how our system works. All of these experiences are important for everyone to be involved, not just as a political party. People really do depend on organizations such as ours to have a sense of community,” Franco said.

“When everyday people are involved with their communities, anything is possible.”

How to help

The Power U outreach involves students from under-resourced schools and economically disadvantaged communities. The nonprofit helps youth learn how to be civically engaged leaders. More at https://www.poweru.org/

Donate on Give Miami Day at https://www.givemiamiday.org/PowerU

The P.S. 305 nonprofit is working to build a diverse network of thousands of families organized into a federation across Miami-Dade County to win on education issue campaigns. More at http://www.ps305.org/

Donate on Give Miami Day at https://www.givemiamiday.org/ps305