By Acooa Ellis | Learning in – and from – a crisis | Twin Cities Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: May 21, 2020 at 8:34 a.m. | UPDATED: May 21, 2020 at 9:55 a.m.

This is an extraordinary time to be a young person. Much like millennials were shaped by the September 11 attacks, young people today are being shaped by a world that was unimaginable just two months ago. They are simultaneously navigating a global pandemic along with the complicated worlds of adolescence and learning.

Our education systems have also been thrust into uncharted territory. Educators across Minnesota are struggling with how to best support their students and families amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

We know disparate education outcomes reflect systems that in many ways were not designed to meet the needs of today’s students. We also know tumultuous times can light a spark for innovation.

Now, given today’s circumstances, nearly all parents are grappling with the challenge of advocating for their kids and filling gaps that our state and districts have yet to cover. One might consider that fact an equalizer. But, low-wealth communities and people of color have long navigated systems ill-equipped to fully actualize their children’s learning potential. The varied ability of parents to adapt to distance learning is the latest evidence.

One common framework for systems change comes from FSG, a social impact consulting firm noted for expertise in collective impact. The “Water of Systems Change” model suggests transformational change is only possible when we closely examine, challenge and ultimately shift the mental models or deeply held beliefs that inform our assessment of how the world works, which also hold a particular problem in place.

In many instances, a jarring personal experience is required for minds to shift.

This moment of disruption presents the charge to examine what could be, against the backdrop of what has been, on behalf of the workforce of the future. If when this crisis passes, we forget the empathy created by our shared experience and fall back into familiar patterns, the gap we collectively lament will widen. Intentional action is required to disrupt inequities and draw meaningful connections to opportunity.

Greater Twin Cities United Way supports career-pathway programs, offering individualized, rigorous and relevant career experiences. The 16 school districts that we partner with are narrowing the gap in access to early college credits for non-white students and those from low-wealth households, building pathways toward family-sustaining wages and zero college debt.

During this pandemic, the career pathway programs we support are benefitting local students by providing career-oriented opportunities that are responsive to our current reality.

For example, students in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191 are producing personal protective equipment (PPE).

And, The Southwest Private Industry Council in Greater Minnesota, in partnership with local school districts, has quickly developed videos showcasing community members and their essential jobs (ex: physician’s assistance and other medical careers) providing a sense of connection, purpose and relevant career-focused information.

Students are witnessing and participating first-hand in the response of their community during a global crisis. Employers are critical partners in reimagining the futures of young people and should use this time to look for creative ways to engage as many high school students as possible in virtual internships.

For some students, the structure of a school day was a source of comfort and stability. Unfortunately, that is not a universal experience. As a young(er) person, I was often struck by the difference in behavior some of my classmates displayed in school, versus our afterschool activities. Students who frequently “cut up” fell in line at the community center.

In hindsight, I recognize that the difference was the presence of a caring adult able to flex their approach and offer direction in a way that did not require anyone to show up any way other than as themselves. This approach is baked into many successful career and future readiness (out-of-school) programs and serves as a solid foundation for building social and emotional skills, essential for effectively navigating uncertainty.

This summer represents a tremendous opportunity for partnership with nearby schools. Community-based career and future readiness programs are well-positioned to help keep students safe, engaged and connected. Many of the smaller organizations that we invest in are faced with the challenge to cover the unanticipated costs required for sufficient social distancing. Schools, better equipped to support distance learning, should see neighboring community organizations as assets with deep relationships among students, families and community. Programs like the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood (SPPN) offer a practical example.

SPPN is a neighborhood-based partnership made up of multiple service providers along with Rondo and Frogtown area schools (Maxfield, Jackson, Benjamin E Mays and Saint Paul City), designed to create a network of support to ensure children’s achievement from cradle to career. The schools within this partnership serve as community hubs to ensure alignment of program delivery in support of families’ overall success.

The adults surrounding our young people need to be unified so that they can cope with uncertainty and grief during this global pandemic. Eventually, our students will return to school but the world around them will not be the same – and neither will they.

We are all well outside of our comfort zones — let’s use this time to ignite our imaginations, to reframe the narrative from crisis response to an invitation for long overdue innovation. This moment begs us to rethink what is required of today’s youth and demands we anchor our actions on what is possible for their future.

Acooa Ellis is senior vice president, community impact, with the Greater Twin Cities United Way.