Here, You Drive


On a Saturday no less, the third annual Hartford ROOTS Youth Leadership Conference last month brought nearly 300 students from 28 Hartford high and middle schools to get beyond common, cute cliché photo ops and identify real neighborhood needs and solutions.  If helping develop leadership skills is the transmission, youth organizing is the engine.  Where is the fuel?


The fuel comes from students like Frances Reyes and Marvin Medina, junior students at the Hartford Public High School Law and Government Academy.  They helped organize the Teach for America-sponsored event May 13th at Pathways to Technology and Design High School.  More than a dozen workshops featured 20 facilitators, slam poetry, youth organizing specialists, and guidance from leaders like Hartford community icon Trudy LeBron.


“Our goal is to amplify student voice and bring students together across neighborhoods and schools to recognize their school leadership skills,” Teach for America Managing Director of Hartford Programs Michelle Szynkowicz said, calling for getting beyond cute student photo ops to address real needs.


Supported by Law and Government Academy Principal José Colon and English Teacher Kaitlin Curran, here’s what the Hartford High students added in an interview Tuesday about their two years of participating in the planning of ROOTS youth conferences, including the most recent one at Pathways:


  • Frances Reyes arrived in Hartford from Puerto Rico at the age of one – and then became a chronicler of educational opportunity.  She attended Parkville, McDonough, Moylan, McDonough again, Clark and a New Britain school, before arriving at Hartford Public High School’s Law and Government Academy, where she is a junior today.


She learned over the years that “you definitely have to connect with your teachers,” she said in an interview Tuesday – and that mobility toughens your character.  As a worker bee for ROOTS conferences over the past two years, she has become interested in conference planning as a career option.  Her lessons learned from planning meetings and running presentations, including one to Bridgeport youth, have led her to conclude that the most challenged students simply need more participation in activities that promote their growth.  “They’re good people, but just come from bad neighborhoods,” she said, recalling her own limited exposure to new experiences as a child.  “Because of lack of money, we didn’t get out and do fun things,” she said.  Now she does.


  • Marvin Medina, also a junior at the Law and Government Academy, was not quite the nomad that Frances was, but he attended Naylor and Burns schools before high school and advises students: “Don’t hesitate to search for opportunities.”  Students at the ROOTS conferences are able to articulate their views and feel more connected, he said Tuesday.  “We want everyone to know that people our age are able to do things,” he emphasized.


When he learned of the ROOTS conferences, he said, “I joined because of so many different people wanting to help themselves and their community.”  As he contemplates majoring in business at college, he said, the youth conferences have helped many a young person overcome nervousness about public speaking.



The Bottom Line


ROOTS stands for “Realizing Our Own True Strengths.”


Managing Director Szynkowicz has a plain explanation for the purpose of the effort to convene middle and high school students.  “Youth hold all the power to bring about change in Hartford,” she told us.  “Youth organizing, with deep training in organizing skills, is key because these individuals are the most severely impacted by inequity.”


We all know that affluent families are positioned to, among other things, take vacations, afford extracurricular and musical enhancements, and continually expose their children to powerful, new experiences driving their growth.  ROOTS conferences help fill the opportunity gap that characterizes less affluent students and point us toward the value of youth organizing.