Imagine If... We Lived in a More Inclusive World

Agency  by  Design Oakland Teacher Fellow, Crystal Barajas Barr, and students from the Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) host a professional development training for teachers at Urban Promise Academy.

Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellow, Crystal Barajas Barr, and students from the Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) host a professional development training for teachers at Urban Promise Academy.

A PICTURE OF PRACTICE BY 2018-2019 AGENCY BY DESIGN OAKLAND TEACHER FELLOW CRYSTAL BARAJAS BARR

Urban Promise Academy is a full-service community school located in the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, CA. The student population is 79% Latinx, 10% Black, 7% Asian, 3% White, and 1% Mixed.

When you ask young people to imagine a different reality, one that is more beautiful and inclusive, you are asking them to dream a new world into existence. Imagination is a first step to calling in change, and the Agency by Design Imagine If... thinking routine is a courageous step towards acknowledging what isn’t working, in order to name what needs to shift.

I chose to focus my Agency by Design Oakland fellowship research on the following inquiry question:

How can thinking routines like ‘Imagine If...’ and ‘Think, Feel, Care’ help shift school culture to be more LGBTQ+ inclusive?

These two Agency by Design thinking routines fit well within a student club like the Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) because both work to support student voice and student-led spaces in a school environment. The GSA is a group for LGBTQ+ students and allies to build community with each other and to share information through educating their peers, teachers, and staff. As the GSA liaison and a member of the queer community, I’ve heard students’ complaints about the lack of support from peers and adults in general. Students have expressed that they have never heard teachers mention anything about LGBTQ+ people and issues in school and have therefore internalized the idea that it is taboo to talk about.

Using the Imagine If... thinking strategy, students in the GSA generated ideas for what change might look like at our school. What would an LGBTQ+ inclusive school look like? What would students learn about in class? Many students were engaged in the thinking exercise and also expressed a concern that things would not really change. This is often a frustration expressed by students: why imagine that things could be different if the people in power are not going to listen and make change happen?

An important piece of the work of the GSA this year was inviting a former student, who is currently a senior in high school, to participate in facilitating and mentoring youth in the GSA. Gabriel, who identifies as a gay trans man, has been integral in supporting other trans youth at UPA and in shaping the teacher PD. The community building that has been happening in our GSA has been nothing short of inspiring and nourishing.

Our focus this year was to move beyond the confines of the club into shaping the overall school culture to be more inclusive. A good way to effect change more quickly is to have youth involved in shifting the ways teachers think about and understand issues facing LGBTQ+ youth in schools. Tierre Mesa, our Assistant Principal at the time and now our Principal, is a staunch ally, and made space in our PD calendar for our staff to receive some training around supporting LGBTQ+ students in our school.

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During this time the GSA students and I were able to introduce the Think, Feel, Care thinking routine and walk teachers through scenarios that featured common experiences facing LGBTQ+ and questioning youth in schools. The Think, Feel, Care thinking strategy encouraged staff to put themselves in the shoes of our LGBTQ+ students, in order to build empathy for their experience within our school. GSA youth were also present at the PD and helped introduce and close the training. This was the first time that youth have participated in a PD, where they were the teachers, and the GSA youth felt empowered from this experience. The staff was open and curious, asking many questions. Over 80% of staff at the PD reported an increase in knowledge of LGBTQ+ terms, and many considered the Think, Feel, Care exercise with the scenarios helpful for thinking through what they might do in a similar situation.

Throughout my time with the GSA this year I was humbled by the wisdom of youth, the insights our young people have, and their ability to educate others.
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Imagine If... is a great way to: 

  • Start having conversations about how we wish things were and get people excited about what could be;

  • Consider what is not happening at this time;

  • Generate excellent ideas, some of which we will be able to implement;

  • Creates positive connections to an idea, system, or project.

With the support of our amazing GSA Youth and staff, we will continue to shape curriculum and educate other students about issues that affect our LGBTQ+ communities, as well as contributions by LGBTQ+ people. We are considering other Agency by Design tools to deepen our thinking — we have now begun using the Parts, People, and Interactions thinking strategy as a tool to further analyze our school system so that we’re better able to understand how we can effect change. The GSA youth plan to host trainings on how to be more supportive of LGBTQ+ students, that will focus on educating other students. Val, our amazing Ameri-Corps Health Educator, also has been an important part of our GSA by bringing Somos Familia to UPA to support our trans youth and their families during the coming out process, as well as presenting LGBTQ+ inclusive sex ed to our students.

To read more from Crystal, check out Ancestral Tech and Making, her Picture of Practice from her first year as an Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellow.

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"Maker-centered learning is student centered, offers multiple entry points to the content for our diverse learnings, encourages creativity and communication, and is particularly engaging for students (and teachers!)"

Crystal Barajas Barr is the Art and Making teacher at Urban Promise Academy. She is a queer Xicana interested in bringing a decolonized framework to her curriculum. She studies herbalism and is currently learning how to sail as a way to connect with Mother Nature.