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The Beloved Community Series: Beloved Community in a Virtual After School Program

At Humanities Amped in 2021, we are celebrating the first of our three core values: beloved community. As we look toward the future and its challenges, this aspect of our organizational vision, to nurture a dynamic, beloved community of lifelong learners and civic leaders, has never felt more essential to our individual and collective well-being. Over the next few months, we will release a series of think pieces reflecting on the theme of beloved community and how it shows up in our work at Humanities Amped. Click here to learn more about the heart of beloved community, and read on to learn about one way it shows up in our work. 

Our next piece is written by Program Director and Instructional Coach Dr. Alex Torres. Alex is a bilingual educator and immigrant youth advocate: her advocacy work, and her award-winning dissertation, address the educational needs of immigrant youth, particularly undocumented adolescent English Learners.

She serves on the Mayor’s International Relations Commission, Baton Rouge Immigrant Rights Coalition, Louisiana Organization for Refugees and Immigrants, and ICARE Advisory Board and has worked with Humanities Amped since 2015. Alex reflects here on the beloved community that has grown within Amped Studio After School this year.

Beloved Community in a Virtual After School Program

by ALEX TORRES

I have to be honest. I was not thrilled about the idea of a virtual after school program. As someone who has been a summer camp counselor and director, I know that building community with young people looks like tossing around a ball to learn names, making bracelets, and singing ridiculous songs that would be stuck in your head for days. As someone who interned with Humanities Amped during graduate school, I know that building community looks like telling stories in a circle, forming body statues in theater exercises, and writing poems together. And then, as someone who went on to teach high school English Learners using Amped practices, I know that building community looks like performing skits to practice new vocabulary words, conducting research to address school problems, and sharing hot chips and popcorn for snacks. How in the world would we build community online? What would community building look like when we could not sit in a circle or toss a ball or snack together in the same space?

To me, building a beloved community felt like it had to happen in person to be meaningful. But to my surprise, these last few months of Amped Studio virtual after school programming have demonstrated that a beloved community will form because people will want it to. On Mondays during DreamKeeper office hours, we form community when students have the opportunity to ask questions about topics they are most interested in, ranging from future careers, physical and mental health, and gendered double standards in sports. Since we serve five different schools, students from across campuses have had an opportunity to engage with one another in conversations that are relevant to them. While we have an Amped staff facilitator helping guide the overall dialogue, the students are the ones taking ownership of the conversation. In the virtual space of DreamKeepers I’ve often found myself feeling like I have the great fortune of tuning into a podcast run by extremely passionate middle and high schoolers. Amped staff Diana Aviles and Tareil George follow up on Wednesdays with tailored career and college readiness workshops, inviting alumni to engage with current students and give their perspective of life after high school. Through these visits the beloved community is expanded across generations of Amped students, renewing energy to both groups.
The camp counselor in me often wants to play games as a means of building community. And while the focus of Tuesday Tutoring implies an emphasis on academics, the virtual games we play on Tuesdays have largely become a motivating factor for students to get their homework done ahead of time. We have certified science, math, and English teachers available to help students with their homework, and students do take advantage of this opportunity to work one-on-one with a teacher. However, my favorite moments on Tutoring Tuesdays are when Ms. Burbank and Ms. Hammond join community volunteers and students in the game room to play trivia. Or when Mx. Araneda does a science experiment demonstrating the electrocution of pickles just for the joy of it. Teachers getting to have fun with their students is a radical form of beloved community, especially in this era of ultra pressurized, high-stakes testing that strips both students and teachers of the joy of learning.

And finally on Thursdays, our students continue to go deeper into conversations about mental health and ways that students can offer peer support to one another. In December, a group of students designed and facilitated a mental health wellness workshop for youth at Big Buddy who have since requested to have other cross-collaborative virtual activities. And even though we did not have a critical participatory action research project planned for students this year, one organically emerged from our afterschool program: the constant conversations around mental health and the concern students have for one another’s well-being were fertile ground for three middle school students, Imani, Estrella, and Sydni to embark on a research project around the gaps in mental health services in school. They designed a survey with the help of teachers and have shared their findings at two local conferences - Roots Camp and Educators Rising.
A virtual, intergenerational, cross-campus beloved community formed through Amped Studio despite the Zoom fatigue, a global pandemic, and many other barriers that unfortunately kept other students from being able to join in. This year we have watched our beloved community expand across the interwebs and reach students, teachers, staff, and volunteers in a meaningful way I had not thought possible. I’m very happy to have been proven wrong about my perceived limits of community.

In the spirit of amplifying youth voice, I believe the best way to close is to leave you with the words of 13 year old Sydni, an Amped Apprentice Leader who has found in Amped Studio space and support to thrive:

"I am so grateful for Humanities Amped giving me a space to just be. If I want to improve my grades, we have Tutoring Tuesdays, and if I want to start preparing for high school and college they provide me the resources to do so in our Dreamkeepers sessions. We have meaningful discussions in every class, but those discussions can really grow on our Thursday classes and I'm also able to express my thoughts in the form of writing on Wednesdays. I'm very appreciative of Humanities Amped for letting me grow.” 
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