In Baltimore, Helping Students and Communities Find Their Voice

Guestblogger Dena Robinson is an ELL public school teacher and community organizer at the Intersection in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also a member of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE).

When the Bronx community I lived in became too violent and my elementary school began to fail, my parents decided enough was enough. We had to move so I could go to a better school to get a better education — one that opened the doors of opportunity rather than shutting me out.

It didn’t come easy, but with a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice, my parents were able to move my family out of the Bronx to Orange County, New York. And there, my parents enrolled me in what I thought was an amazing school, something that simply didn’t exist where I once lived.

At my new school, I discovered opportunities I had never imagined. I was one of the only students of color enrolled in the Honors/AP program. I was the only student of color on the rowing team. But it was there that I discovered something else – the power of my voice.

Reaching back to my mother’s love of organizing and my father’s love of social justice, I used my voice to tackle problems that existed within the walls of my school – problems like our school’s lunch policy that discriminated against students enrolled in free- and reduced-lunch programs.

And through these experiences, I learned about true power and how it can be cultivated for good – a lesson I continue to draw on today, as a teacher and community organizer in Baltimore.

In my classroom, I work to empower English Language Learners by helping them find their voice. Some of my students have gone from shy and barely vocal to confident and unafraid to speak up.

Outside the classroom, I work at a non-profit called the Intersection, which empowers young students to find and use their voice to tackle big problems like gun violence.

Whether it’s been as a classroom teacher or an organizer at the Intersection, I have seen the power that community organizing has brought to the students, parents, and residents of Baltimore City. I have come to understand that organizing does not happen for communities but with communities. And I’ve seen what’s possible when people find their voice, come together and advocate for change.

And I am not alone.

At Leadership for Educational Equity’s National Organizing Workshop in Chicago, I met other teachers and educators who found organizing and power to be equally as important for students to learn as subjects like math, science, and language arts.

That experience inspired me to think even more deeply about how to incorporate organizing principles into my classroom so that my students have the tools and skills they need to become effective organizers and advocates for themselves and their communities.

I teach because education can be a radical way to empower young people and give them a sense of hope and the endless possibilities that come from finding power within. And I organize because I remember seeing citizens in my community who were disillusioned by what was going on around them but felt powerless to make a change.

I do this work because I want others to enjoy the same opportunities my parents fought so hard to give to me. And I will keep on doing this work with the hope that our system of public schools will become the radical forces for change and empowerment that they should be – so that all children can thrive, grow, and make the world a better place.

9 thoughts on “In Baltimore, Helping Students and Communities Find Their Voice

  1. jeffrey miller

    Stop it. Just stop it already, Andy.

    Nothing personal, Dena, but do you know who you work for? You likely have no idea how precious, how shallow, how programmed you sound to the real professionals in your professed line of work. “Some of my students have gone from shy and barely vocal to confident and unafraid to speak up.” What do you want, a medal? A gold star? I’m going to type something that will probably sound harsh but here goes: What you are doing, is just your work.

    There are hundreds of thousands of teachers every damned day who are doing just what you are doing. That’s your JOB. It might even be your calling. But don’t get on websites like this and expect to be treated like you’re something special because, you know what? You’re not.

    If you think the power of your voice is all that. Well, it’s not. It’s nice and all you cite your parents but you know what? Not everyone has your privilege, ok? See, all you are selling here is a Nice Story. Save it for straight to DVD.

    Next time you decide to go public try another approach. Like humility. Do you know how many times you used the word, “i”, in this post? Self-promoters use “i”. Leaders use “we”.

  2. PhillipMarlowe

    When the Bronx community I lived in became too violent and my elementary school began to fail, my parents decided enough was enough. We had to move so I could go to a better school to get a better education — one that opened the doors of opportunity rather than shutting me out.

    Why did the elementary school “fail”?

  3. Dena

    @Jeffrey Miller:

    Thank you for your response! I do know who I work for and I know that I am not the only teacher in education or in Baltimore City doing this work and I acknowledge that. I also acknowledge that I’ve learned all that I have from veteran teachers who have done work like this for years before I was even born. This article wasn’t written as a “self-promoting” piece because I don’t feel I need accolades for anything I do, however, it was written to delve into how the National Organizing Workshop made me feel in the work that I’m doing in Baltimore and the US alongside other educators. Hope that helps to clear up any confusion.

  4. Dena

    @PhillipMarlowe: The school was failing students because it was over-capacity, not fully-staffed, and the achievement of students had been failing for years. The school didn’t provide wraparound services for students and families in the community and there were students constantly falling through the cracks. Eventually, it came to be shut down and replaced by a charter.

  5. Jeremy

    I agree about the power of voice yet I agree with Jeffrey’s (rather harsh) declaration that it is the responsibility and frankly the expectation of what we do that we teach our students to have such a voice. I am curious however Dena on your thoughts about the charter movement. Given your response to Phillip I assume you support their implementation yet you celebrate the school in New York you went to for the opportunities it provided you, a phrase no student of a charter school has uttered since they do the opposite. I’m just curious given your own experience what you think is best: the rigor, structure, and test prep of the charter environment or the possibilities and opportunities provided at the district level… when the level works.

  6. Jess

    This article was a joy to read. I can truly feel the passion behind the words you are writing. In my experience, as both a graduate student as well as a someone who holds a bachelors of elementary education, the number of teachers like you are dwindling. I do recognized that there are still teacher like you out there, however now more than ever we need more. I love that you are working with ELL to help them find their voices. Where I did one of my placements for student teaching there was a large number of Native American students that were being mainstreamed into the public school systems in the area after having been enrolled in the schools on their reservation. The transition was difficult for all the students and I observed, on more than one occasion, when teachers and administrators dismissed the issues at hand with these student and it made me sick! I love your idea of working with these students to help them find their voice. The intersection sounds like a great program. I wish I knew more about it. Students finding their voice to help tackle large problems is not only a skill that will help them in school, but in life in general. I loved reading your post it truly inspired me! Keeping fighting for your student and keep teaching them how to fight for themselves.

  7. Dena

    @Jeremy: So, the school that I went to wasn’t a charter school. It was a large, public high school in Orange County, NY. I was actually just having a conversation about private v. public schools with someone last night. I am and probably always will be a huge proponent of public education. Ideally, I think that federal funding for public education should be higher and resources should be allocated to public school education. For a vast majority of students in the U.S., public education is it. And it doesn’t sit right with me at all that a student can go through public education their entire life, but still lack all of the cultural and academic experiences that their peers who attended private and/or charter schools were afforded. I would’ve loved to stay at my school in NY and I think my parents took me out of my public school that turned into a charter simply because they didn’t agree with the charter model. I think that some charter schools are great, but I don’t understand why the energy and enthusiasm that goes into getting a charter school off the ground, can’t be funneled into energy and enthusiasm for bringing a failing school back into crowning glory.

    I think that public schools can one day be academic powerhouses–there are plenty of public schools doing that already. I just think that in order for that to happen, there needs to be a complete restructuring of how we support public schools, public school teachers, and school districts. But I think that it can happen eventually and I don’t believe that public schools necessarily need to be replaced by charters if they’re failing, I just think those schools/school districts need an organized body of people to do whatever they need to do to turn that school around.

  8. PhillipMarlowe

    I think that public schools can one day be academic powerhouses–there are plenty of public schools doing that already. I just think that in order for that to happen, there needs to be a complete restructuring of how we support public schools, public school teachers, and school districts.. I just think that in order for that to happen, there needs to be a complete restructuring of how we support public schools, public school teachers, and school districts.

    Why not do what “plenty of public schools doing that already.” do?
    If it works for them, use it elsewhere.
    What aresome examples of these plenty of public academic powerhouses.

  9. Corrie Castner

    “I teach because education can be a radical way to empower young people and give them a sense of hope and the endless possibilities that come from finding power within. And I organize because I remember seeing citizens in my community who were disillusioned by what was going on around them but felt powerless to make a change.”

    I like this paragraph very much Dena. I’m not a teacher, not even a high school graduate, but I feel this should be the final goal behind all words, teachings and intentions. This should be the essence of any teachings all around the globe. I am also disillusioned by what happens around me, but continue to follow my path. Becasue I am part of what happen around others, as they are part of what happen around me. Our paths create the community highway! Thanks, Corrie.

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