By Emily Takimoto
This is my second full-time AmeriCorps year serving with Denver Public Schools. Last year I served with the educational nonprofit City Year, as a 5th grade tutor and mentor at Trevista at Horace Mann in Northwest Denver. This year, as a Family and Community Engagement (FACE) Education Corps member, I serve at High Tech Early College (HTEC) in the Far Northeast region of Denver and serve grades 9 through 12. One of my primary responsibilities at HTEC is to build meaningful and intentional relationships with students on my attendance caseload. Serving in a high school has presented noticeable differences in comparison to last year, such as age, schoolwork, maturity and individual responsibility. In this story, I want to discuss the challenges of navigating through these differences and how those challenges further solidify my passion towards serving Denver’s youth and ensuring they have access to an equitable education.
Serving in an elementary school, rather than a high school, forces me to rethink my approach with students and how I can be the most impactful. As such, my first few months at HTEC have been very reflective for me, I am consistently thinking of ways to seem more relatable to my students. Yet, at times, I am met with resistance. More specifically, I see the most resistance with the young men of color on my attendance caseload. I have thought hard about why this may be and in turn, done my best to utilize resources and seek out relevant trainings. Though fundamentally, a primary reason may be due to the fact that I do not look like my students.
Many people try to say that they “do not see” race or that it “should not matter” what color you are – but in this line of service, I’m realizing, that’s just not the case. In fact, there is little coincidence to why each school that AmeriCorps members serve in usually contains at least 90% students of color. AmeriCorps serves low-income, impoverished, and increasingly segregated communities that face overwhelming barriers. These are the schools that need us most and we cannot deny the racial component either. I think why I find it uncomfortable to approach these young men or why I am so quick to dismiss my ability to develop strong relationships with them is due to my preconceived biases. Those unconscious biases undoubtedly affect every one of us when introduced to people that “do not look like us”. For some, we see young black or Latino men and may unknowingly assume what they are like or what to expect from them.
Looking back on my experience at East High School, I can easily recall moments that would perpetuate these biases. For instance, my AP classes were predominately white while the regular classes were students of color and more so, white students were recognized for academic achievements while black students were typically highlighted for athletics. There was an inherent level of segregation that has absolutely impacted and informed my biases. It was not until I began serving with Denver Pubic Schools as an AmeriCorps member that I noticed how detrimental those biases can be.
As an alum of Denver Public Schools, I have a certain affinity towards HTEC students and their success. I want them to have access to the same resources and opportunities as I did. However, when we don’t allow ourselves to confront our biases and disconfirm them, we make the mistake of being simply sympathetic towards our students rather than really building authentic relationships that help form equity. In these terms, I believe it requires an extra layer of perseverance and attention as an AmeriCorps member in order to best support our young men of color and overcome those biases together.
In this way, I could choose to let my race or gender act as a barrier between my students and I, but then I would not be actively attempting to understand my students, where they come from and the barriers they face on a daily basis. Moreover, I would not be doing my duty to ensure equity for my students. Equity is providing the support and structures that allows my students a chance to play from an equal playing field and be successful. Thus, this transition from elementary to high school has challenged me in one of the most positive ways possible. It is teaching me to push back when uncomfortable and acknowledge that every student is on his or her own trajectory. Most importantly, I have to evaluate who I really am and my purpose for serving at HTEC in hopes of making a difference in a student’s life, whether big or small. In the end, my students, their stories, and my personal memories with them has been and will be the reason I find my service so worthwhile and meaningful.
FACE Education Corps member Emily Takimoto with students from her AmeriCorps attendance caseload.