40 minutes.

That’s how long some youth in Bridgeport are walking during the school year just to make it in time for their first class. Unsafe routes and the general lack of adequate school and public transportation creates a “perfect storm” of inaccessibility, that often results in students being late and receiving disciplinary action as a result. Through their “Walking Towards a Brighter Future” campaign, the Youth Power Committee at Make the Road CT (MTRCT) has been fighting for educational access by addressing these transportation inequities.

From their 6am walk with the Bridgeport schools Superintendent and a Board of Education member, to their testifying on behalf of the campaign before school board, Make the Road CT youth have been making huge strides on their journey to equitable transportation and education access. We spoke with Youth Leader Tania and Youth Organizer Alison to find out more about their personal growth both as leaders and as young people, as well as the current progress of “Walking Towards a Brighter Future”.

Q: Would you mind introducing yourselves, and sharing how you got involved with MTRCT?
A: Hi, my name is Alison! I’m 25 and the Youth Organizer with MTRCT. We are in Bridgeport and Hartford, but I organize specifically in Bridgeport. I organize people from 13 to 21, and I am also undocumented. I got involved with organizing young people as an activist with C4D (Connecticut Students for a Dream) when I was 19 years old. I started to do activism around immigrant rights because I didn’t have a community growing up of undocumented immigrants, and I did not feel like I had a voice that mattered.

I got involved because of a specific moment that pushed me – I was charged out-of-state tuition despite having been in Connecticut for more than 10 years, and this was solely because of my immigration status. I found a community at an organization that was just made up of undocumented students, and we pushed to change the law that forced undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates, and later to qualify for institutional financial aid. Due to organizing and activism work with them, I met Make the Road New York and fell in love with the murals, the open space, and the immigrant-led work that was led by low-income, working class community and that’s why when MTRCT found a space in Bridgeport I was excited. So when the opportunity to get paid to do something I already loved in 2016 came up, I applied to be a youth organizer and I’ve been here since then.

T: My name is Tania, and I am 13 years old. I am also undocumented, and one reason I joined was because my mom wanted me to try new things. Afterwards, I could’ve left but I chose to stay because I saw that MTRCT worked like a family, and focused on things I didn’t know were happening. Like transportation – kids weren’t qualifying for buses, and walking 30 minutes or more, and I was really intrigued about how they had young people trying to change how schools aren’t treating us equally.

I’m happy I stayed because I’ve made so many friends here. I’ve met new people and most of them are older than me, because I am 13, but I’ve been able to connect to some people here in Bridgeport and we’re all fighting for the same cause.

Q: What initially interested you all in youth organizing with MTRCT? What made you stay?
A: I think what helped me to keep fighting and improve my organizing skills was that organizing within immigrant rights isn’t just about immigration; it ties so much into the criminal justice system in this country, the pipeline between how our young people are treated in schools (depending on their immigration status or the income of their families) and how that determines where they’re going to end up after graduation, if they even make it to graduation. I come from a space where I feel privileged enough to articulate what I’ve said, because of the trainings and workshops I was able to go into and learn how systems of oppression affect me and other people.

Being in Bridgeport, I was able to realize how that wasn’t happening here, and how people had been kept out because they were poor, and may not understand social justice language or make connections between different systems that keep us oppressed, and I didn’t want that to continue in this organization. And being in Bridgeport humbled me because we’re the most underfunded district in Fairfield County and Connecticut as well, so young people having a school district that gives them what they deserve, that allows them be the drivers of their lives is important. We have young people who have been ignored for so long, and so are their parents; sometimes, they came from another country where they were ignored and continued to be ignored here. Young people make a really significant choice – they either open their hearts and come to MTRCT, or they haven’t yet and they’re welcomed and still can join, as long as they are respectful and believe everyone deserves humanity. Our growth really shows how we are able to believe in and build with young people who see these injustices first-hand.

T: One reason I stay is because of how Make the Road collects data. As youth in Make the Road we asked students, tested the streets, and graded the streets by the same grades that the schools give us (A through F). And after we graded the streets, we tried to make them better. We are all doing this, we’re like a family, we’re close and the that’s mostly why I stay.

Q: What is your current campaign about?
A: Through my one on ones I’ve continued to hear about issues that youth in schools experience: teachers talking down to them, school lunch being inadequate and unhealthy, worrying about parents’ deportation, and out-of-date textbooks. But something that always came up was, “We are walking to school because we don’t have school buses.” 13 to 21 is a big range, and everyone brought it up because they’d experienced it either in middle school, high school or since elementary school. Something that was astonishing that we were able to break down was “We’re walking; that’s just how it is, and we’ve been walking since my mom was a youth.” This is what we’re okay with, and it’s not our fault; we’ve been fed crumbs and used to crumbs. MTRCT became the space where we were able to talk about that, and tackle it.

Through “WalkingTowards a Brighter Future”, we were able to talk about what walking to school means for students. We learned:

  • This is a policy that the Board of Education has gotten away with year after year, and MTRCT has said not anymore with “Walking Towards a Brighter Future”.
  • To qualify for a school bus it used to be 1.5 miles, now it’s 2 miles, and next year it will be 2.5 miles. That’s to save money on students – we want to change policy with the quality of walking for our students (distance).
  • We’re also hearing: high schoolers/8th graders how are worried about their high school years walking and being late to school – getting farther and farther from graduation.
  • Our campaign also touches on a school district problem – the city is not prioritizing the safety of our community or our public. Our students are walking streets that were graded F, and it’s no surprise that streets with better grades were where property taxes were higher, and more white people lived there, with wealthier schools. At most, maybe one of our youth at MTRCT come from that area.
  • Currently, students’ reality is that they’re going to be walking to school, and at some point be late to class. Then, they’ll be kept out of the classroom and it’s as if they don’t want us to succeed. The youth keep hearing, “If you try harder, or make this walk you’ll succeed”, but they go through so much more already, why this too?
  • Our campaign came from an issue that was perceived as “No big deal!” but we got everyone together and really discussed it. Bridgeport is a big city, the largest population in Connecticut, and we have people from our three major high schools who all agree this is an issue.

T: The youth who collected data on graduation rates used surveys, and we had a meeting where a woman came and showed us how to use them. When our youth went out, they mostly graded the streets like how we’re graded in our schools, and most of the streets got F’s. Most of us weren’t surprised because we see how crappy those streets are, and so this helped give us a base to stand on because our campaign is about us trying to get buses. These streets aren’t safe for us – there are cracks in the street, we get harrassed. There are so many stories that MTRCT youth have, but at first they didn’t want to hear from us.

A: Tania took the lead on approaching Board of Education members at City Hall before they went to their meetings. I learned about “bird-dogging” from United We Dream, and it was the first time we did it to lobby politicians, pushing them to make decisions to support their community. Since they’re not prepared on talking points [when they’re simply walking into their meeting], they react the way they naturally would on-camera, and it allows the advocate to run the agenda and the conversation.

T: When we went bird-dogging, went up to the Board of Education, and we stopped some them while they were going into the meeting. Some of the members tried to hear us out, and some of them ignored us. One said “I can’t do anything about it” and another woman said “You should keep your nose out of it.” Most of them ignored us youth, including my friend Michelle, and she didn’t get to present her main topic when she was speaking. They rushed her and said “That’s not my district, that’s not my problem.” Once they saw that we were ‘courting’ them though, they became more open to us, and began saying “We’re trying to fix it, we’re working on it” because they wanted to get re-elected. I wasn’t initially meant to speak, but I took the role for another youth member who was a little scared. When I stepped up, I brought my friend too, and we were both scared but we went up and tried something new. We both wanted them to hear what our experiences were. They rushed us, but we did speak out, and it opened a new door for us, now we can speak more. For her, it was really new, and it made her want to come back to participate in MTRCT again.

Q: What’s been either a highlight of your campaign so far, or something you’re especially proud of from your time with MTRCT?
T: Recently, we went into the street and took an intersection where there was less walking space and more space for cars, and we painted the intersection so students can have more space to walk, and to make the streets look better and nicer. A lot of community members participated and even people walking by. At the end we had pictures, and videos of our participation. It was so great that the community, even if they don’t know who we were, was able to see what we’re capable of and what we’re doing.

A: For one I feel very moved right now because Tania’s doing an amazing job; she mentioned that she’s not very open – yes she’s one of our shy-est youth – but she brings such pride to youth organizing and what it really means. I don’t consider myself an artist – don’t have enough hours in the day to make art! But I put that out there because Tania is an artist, and she joined MTRCT during our summer program – we’d started in July and she started last year, at the beginning of July 2017. At that point, we had two other youth who were shy, and expressed themselves best through art, and when teamed up with them, I’d never seen such progress in my last five years of youth organizing and working with young people. I’m proud, and that’s one of the highlights I wanted to talk about, because I saw them connecting through the art and not needing me (that’s my goal for them to take ownership and not need me), for them to say, “We got this.” And although they might not speak a lot, their art was telling of the issues they experienced and how they felt about them. I anticipated some challenges because I had artists in my group and I couldn’t personally make art but when Tania joined, the shoe fit perfectly – it was the perfect match, and they were able to attract more people because of the art they started to make, and commit to. For young people who suffer the most with trauma and mental health issues, I appreciate art as a way to heal and open up in a space that’s new to them.

A: It’s all about seeing youth that are stepping up and coming from schools that have a lot of stereotypes; youth who are able to take that space not just for them, but for young people who are coming after them and their families. It comes from a place of love, and I know it’s been so hard to find love in these times, especially under this new administration.

Q: How do you bring people into the MTRCT community and connect them to youth organizing in general? How do you build your base?
T: I’ve brought two people into this community, and the first thing I share is what our campaign is about – I connect with them, and ask questions about if they’re walking to school. I do find people who are scared to speak out because of their [immigration] status, or afraid they’ll get in trouble if they speak out too much at school. But my friend Michelle talks a lot about how if she’s late she has to walk, and how she might miss the bus. And I do try to connect with people on how they can make the community a better place.

A: Tania just described making connections, and moving people, and…I thought she would mention the food, haha! We also tell them there’s pizza and music – it makes people have a better visual of our space. We have a community that’s been stabbed in the back so many times by their school district, administrators, et cetera. I know the experience from door knocking, leafleting – there’s a lot of mistrust, and with our young women there’s a lot of harassment that they’ve experienced. In analyzing our communications, I’ve realized that’s probably why I have a hard time getting contacts or signatures, and I also realized that it happens to me too. Why would anyone younger feel safe to talk in a public setting? So in the area that we’re in, I’ll walk with the person, and talk with them about offering a safe space for young people every Friday after school, and when we’re near MTRCT I’ll point out the space. I’ve even brought people inside, and then walk them home again.

A: I think it helps when people see our space: we’re a storefront in the hood, and that’s not where you find most nonprofits. It’s also been challenging because not all parents want to send their kids there, but inside it’s community. It feels safe, and people want to send their young people there once they’ve been inside. Beyond that, the potlucks, the music – I can’t imagine being a 14 year old person right now and with this administration, and I say that to say I learn the most from the youth when they host their movie/social/art nights. Those are events they lead most often, especially for our newer youth, and that might be where they’re most comfortable. They might go for just that, but they do come back.

Q: What should we look out for from MTRCT’s youth organizers?
A/T: Artivism opportunities every Friday in the summer!