"Se hace puentes al andar" : PODER and the Young Scholars for Justice
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Youth of color are routinely dehumanized and treated as objects both in schools and in society. The “banking method” approach to teaching and stringent zero tolerance policies that are prevalent in low-income schools predominantly populated by youth of color serve to push youth out of school and pull them into the school-to-prison pipeline. When students do not meet their school’s standards, the institutional gaze is fixed disapprovingly on the child and the family. The history of segregation and institutionalized oppression that led to a legacy of inadequate and culturally irrelevant schooling and a poor quality of life for communities of color is erased. For the children who grow up in such environments, a historical silence makes it difficult if not impossible to make sense of their present-day conditions and the changes they are witnessing in their communities. People Organized in the Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) is an organization that focuses on issues of environmental, economic, and social justice, and strives to facilitate youth empowerment through their Young Scholars for Justice (YSJ) summer program. The youth of color in the program are positioned as knowledgeable researchers and historical actors in their community. The Chicana feminist epistemology of PODER’s staff members creates a nurturing and family-like environment for the youth, which has a significant impact on the females, and enables youth to utilize personal experiences to develop a structural analysis of oppression. As youth acquire a historical conocimiento of East Austin, they also learn about organized resistance to oppression vis-à-vis environmental justice campaigns. In doing so, a spiritual activism blossoms in the youth that is born from their wounds of oppression and rooted in a cultural and historical awareness of their community. The youth engage in a cycle of praxis as their spiritual activism mobilizes them against injustices and ushers in their transformation into subjects. Through participant observation and interviews, I weave together a critical case study of the YSJ program that is informed by the metamorphosis I experienced after participating in the program.