Tyler E. Brewster and Shana Louallen are hard at work, utilizing their Black Girl Magic to reform the education system. Peer Connect is an organization which provides for high-school aged youth, parents and school-based staff, empowering them to effect change.
We spoke to Tyler and Shana about Peer Connect and to find out how they are making a difference, one workshop at a time.
SMC: How did you come up with the idea for Peer Connect?
We believe that we were born to do this work. We were both born and raised in New York City and attended public schools, K - 12. After working together at a small school in Brooklyn, we saw the need to connect Restorative Justice to real situations that involved race, class, power, and privilege in ways other folks were not tackling. We also saw a real need in our young folks who sought opportunities to share their experiences and eventually lead discussions. Peer Connect came from the idea that we could both teach all stakeholders how to engage in this work and also provide young folks with a way to share their ideas on how to improve this work to meet their needs.
SMC: How did the two of you meet?
Once upon a time, we were colleagues at a struggling school in Brooklyn. Tyler was a Dean, and Shana was a Social Worker who worked together to tackle some of the challenges students were facing within the school community. We, along with a few other colleagues, started a young girls’ group which helped us to solidify our working relationship and our friendship as folks out here just trying to change the world. #blackgirlmagic
The poetic (and short) version though, is that the day Shana came in to interview we felt each other’s energy and instinctively knew we’d be fast friends!
SMC: Was it difficult getting this venture off the ground?
Being entrepreneurs is a difficult, often uphill journey. Being female entrepreneurs of color, presents an entirely different and unique set of challenges. On the flip side, some parts, due to our experience and expertise, were easy to get off the ground. But we won’t lie, the overall task of going for one’s dream is never easy, but always rewarding.
We’re thankful for the organizations such as 4.0 schools and Camelback Ventures and their missions for supporting entrepreneurs in education, like us.
SMC: How willing are those high up in the education system to implement the changes needed?
That depends. Too often, folks holding positions of power within our public education system are entirely disconnected from the communities they are charged to serve. Students of color make up nearly 50% of the public school student population, however, educators of color are less than 15% of educators workforce.
Sometimes you’ll get some stellar administrators who are open to expanding their school’s toolbox and understanding when it comes to conflict resolution, as well as race, class, power, and privilege as well as gender and sexuality. These administrators are out there, but they’re seemingly rare-- unicorns in the education forest, if you will.
SMC: What is included and what will be learned in one of your workshops?
We believe in truly meeting schools and communities where they are. To that end, we aim to provide an inclusive and culturally relevant learning experience. Our participants learn about the historical anchors of restorative justice and Circle Keeping, the history of school discipline and dissect a number of interesting oppressions facing school communities. In short, folks learn A LOT.
Ultimately, we keep it real, we keep it funky and we push all participants to stretch their thinking, not only about how they can help transform their school communities, but more importantly how they can think more deeply about they way they engage with the world at large outside of the classroom-- including with their family and friends. Is this work difficult? Absolutely. But it so very critical if we truly want to reshape our future.
SMC: Who would you say were the most at risk?
Really, if our schools continue to fail communities of color -- we are all at risk. If we don’t invest in the holistic development of our youth, we are robbing ourselves of so many possibilities for the future. It is our duty to create meaningful opportunities of education and discourse for our young people. Too often we celebrate the mere idea of “student voice” but haven’t tackled the nuts-and-bolts of how to truly cultivate and develop youth leaders.
SMC: And the parents, are they fully aware of the challenges their children are facing day in, day out?
Parents, guardians and/or caring adults are too often left out of conversations related to the issues impacting their school communities. Sometimes schools forget that there are many adults who have very jagged relationships with schools due to their own school-based experiences growing up. As a result, schools need reminders to be more intentional with bringing families into the school in a way that allows them to feel part of the school community, rather than blaming the parent/guardian for being distant-- which we see a lot.
Student led conferences, family potlucks, home visits, school carnivals on a Saturday-- these are community building efforts that parents have been shown to express positive engagement. Schools and youth-facing organizations can make these efforts and more to bring families deeper into the school community.
SMC: Do you feel the education system is designed to set black and brown children up for failure?
Well, it’s surely not set up for them to excel. So it has to make you wonder what is the mission of education and where did we lose that vision? We talk a lot about this in our training, particularly the way colonization has continued to leave destructive traces in our education system.
We hope to bring education back to a place where schools are places for learning and growth as opposed to preparation for rote thinking and punishment for critical engagement.
SMC: What advice do you have for parents, children, and teachers finding it difficult to navigate through the school system?
Ask questions and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Dismantling systems of oppression is a monumental task. We have to create a community of encouragement and support so that we are reminded that we don’t have to - nor should we - do this work alone. Show up, when and where you can.
Parents/guardians: We encourage you to look into local/community-based organizations to help you with your rights as a parent as well as that of a student. If you feel something is wrong, go with your gut and don’t take “no” for an answer until you get down to the bottom of what you need for your child. We value parent input and parent voice as well as student voice, so please don’t hesitate to speak up and find an advocate.
SMC: How can we get involved/support Peer Connect?
Connections are always amazing!
If you are a student, family member or educator who is interested in learning more, we welcome questions and conversation.
We are currently working on establishing a Peer Connect Training Center for stakeholder education and designing a Circle Keeping Toolkit. If you are or know someone who is interested in starting a conversation around shifting school culture - we’d love to get connected.