Empowering youth voices is at the core of our mission at WITS. That’s why we partnered with XQ America and Brave New Voices to bring the Rethink High School campaign to Houston, creating an open forum event where youth from across the city can voice their ideas of what high school can and should be, brainstorming with each other and sharing their viewpoints with local public officials and youth advocates—people with the power to make a difference.

The event kicked off with music from 97.9 The Box and a bold, challenging video from XQ America explaining the purpose of the Rethink High School campaign: to create a high school environment that makes students feel valued, challenged, instrumental in their own learning, and equipped to solve the problems facing their communities.

Houston Poet Laureate Deborah “D.E.E.P” Mouton and 97.9 The Box radio hosts KG Smooth and Keisha Nicole shared stories of their own high school experiences and served as moderators for the breakout sessions that followed. In the breakouts, students shared their answers to questions conceived of by members of WITS’ Youth Advisory Council. Students filled the posters with their ideas and voiced powerful insights on how social justice, mental health awareness, diversity & inclusion, and other pressing issues facing today’s youth could be better addressed by high schools.

The thought-provoking discussions were followed by poems performed by members of the Meta-Four Houston slam team and Houston’s Youth Poet Laureate, Fareena Arefeen. The poems delivered incisive critiques of our current education system. Between the lyrical messages of the young poets and the impassioned opinions shared by student attendees, the room pulsed with an eagerness to make the ideas expressed in the discussion sessions a reality.

The event’s key speakers and panelists included a wide array of stakeholders–Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros; Lisa Felske of the Harris County Department of Education; Douglas Torres-Edwards of the HISD Arts Access Initiative; OCA Co-Facilitator and president of the Education Rainbow Challenge, Cecil Fong; Mark Cueva of the City of Houston Department of Neighborhoods; and the Assistant Director of University of Houston’s Creative Writing program, Giuseppe Taurino. Asked to share their hopes for educational reform and innovation, ideas flowed easily, from Councilmember Cisneros’ call for job opportunities for students still in high school to Douglas Torres-Edwards’ proposition that the students without great grades or perfect attendance should be placed at the center, not pushed to the margins and left to slip through the cracks.

The panelists then fielded questions from students about how they could put their ideas into action, leading to more empowering answers. Mark Cueva and Giuseppe Taurino encouraged the students in attendance to be the ones to speak up and inspire others in the process. Cecil Fong issued a challenge to push beyond the built-in diversity of Houston and make an active effort to befriend people outside of their own social groupings. Lisa Felske reminded the students that although they weren’t yet old enough to vote, they could still make their voices heard by attending city council and school board meetings.

As the program drew to a close, event emcee and WITS/Youth Speaks Future Corps Fellow Monica Davidson issued a call to action to the students. “These conversations we’ve had have been incredible. They’ve been inspiring. But they can’t stay inside the walls of this community center! You have to take them with you, share them with your friends, bring them into the outside world.”

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