Northfield Promise, a StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network member in Northfield, Minn., launched a Racial Equity Team in late 2019 to create an equitable environment for young people and families. Despite the obstacles of 2020, they made important strides in their first year. Here are three key insights from their work:
Start with youth.
The team at Northfield Promise understands the importance of trusting young people to lead. Youth engagement has always been a founding principle of their equity work, and the launch of their Racial Equity Team was designed to include students.
“[Our Racial Equity Team] experience was a valuable reminder of the power of youth engagement and voice,” says Zach Pruitt, executive director of the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative, which houses Northfield Promise. “Their voices and vision led to different actions than [we would have seen] if they hadn’t been present in those conversations.”
The students on the team shared their experiences within the school system with their former teachers, including at a district-wide staff in-service program. One student called it “life-changing,” and spoke to the power of being vulnerable in sharing struggles to inform change.
The Equity Team saw students constantly thinking bigger, pushing to continue this work on a larger scale. They call for revising curriculums through an anti-racist lens and ensuring that classes reflect the diversity of their communities.
There’s also an inherent sense of urgency for youth, with graduation dates doubling as finish lines. Students want to see change while they’re still around, making them motivated to follow through and hold others accountable.
Use small wins to build momentum, but be patient.
One of the big surprises from the Northfield Promise Racial Equity Team’s pilot year was how quickly some changes can be made. For instance, Northfield passed policies to end to the glorification of often-racist historical figures through the naming of school buildings. This resolution affects two existing school names and will lead to revisions to the school mascot.
Despite the excitement of quick wins, a lot of this work is a long-term investment. Generating trust is crucial to keeping a steady pace. It’s often impossible to predict how certain outcomes will play out, or what shape they might take. Tapping key resources and amplifying small wins can help urge progress along.
In practice, this might look like putting in place the building blocks that can serve as catalysts for change further along. For example, in focusing on youth voice from the beginning, Northfield Promise created the community trust that allowed for their recent accomplishments. The team also learned that documenting and emphasizing changes as they happen can keep momentum going.
Lift up lived experiences.
The ability to learn not just from the work, but from the community itself, played a key role in all of these wins. The district superintendent has been a champion of the Equity Team’s work from the start. That social capital and organizational muscle helped move the team’s agenda forward. According to Pruitt, the superintendent’s support for “the answers that come from within the community and from students” has been critically important.
“Part of our approach to all this work is to not try to direct too much,” Pruitt explains. “We create space and create opportunity and then get out of the way — or figure out what is needed to excel, or where we can put resources to accelerate this kind of work. We don’t have the answers, we’re not ahead in any way. We’re just trying to figure it out, too, and I think we have a commitment to continue to work on it.”
This approach has led to their accomplishments as a community, and it’s only the beginning. Northfield as a whole has learned to put their trust in the community, in the youth and in the work.
The answers will come.