What exactly is the SJEP?
It's a school-based program in which students learn history and government from a multicultural--especially a Chicano--perspective. We enhance the curriculum so they can conduct their own qualitative research, investigate problems of social justice and come up with solutions they then present to family, community members and school and public officials. Right now, we have a summer program going on.
Why is the SJEP important? Does it work?
Well, I have a biased opinion, since I developed it. (Laughs.) But I think it's one of the best educational programs in the country--I really do. There's lots of research showing that to establish meaningful education, you have to make the content relevant to students' lives. Do that, and they should--will--become more engaged in learning. It doesn't sound too complicated, but you'd be amazed at how much of our education system is not relevant. It doesn't make students look critically at education, policies or the economic system within their communities, or how those things create various injustices, especially in high schools. One of the most important goals of education is to produce critically minded citizens--people who are prepared to create and promote democracy. Young people crave that.
What strikes you as most impressive about the project?
Whatever we present to these young people, they always rise to the challenge--and not only that, but they pretty much teach themselves. When we first started the program, the students (who graduated that year) went on to produce their own documentary on racial inequality in Tucson--a very complicated video that was shown all over the country. Now, some of those same students are teaching younger generations how to make videos. This had been my goal--it wasn't about me being this leader and telling them how to do things. It was about saying, "This is the situation; let's create this opportunity."
Tell me about the coolest things the students have accomplished.
In April, young people from here gathered with other youth researchers from across the country--New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco--and had a little congress, and they developed a national youth bill of rights. It'll probably be out sometime in the fall. Oh, and some of the same youth researchers at the congress contributed to a chapter of a book called Revolutionizing Education. ... It's nuts.
Didn't you just write a book, too?
Yeah, it should be out early next year. It's called Sueños Americanos, and it's about some of the research I did on Latino youth in Oakland (Calif.). It describes the power of youth agency, of those who come from working-class backgrounds, and how they're able to carve out a space for themselves.
What's the SJEP doing this summer?
The summer program is youth coordinated, and they're doing this proposal and documentary to establish a youth center here in Tucson to serve all different backgrounds. They went to visit youth centers around town and did surveys about having this center, asking people if they'd be interested in getting involved, in bringing about social change. The students will present the results of their research and part of the documentary to a (Tucson Unified School District) summer teacher's institute. It'll be a real-life example of what can happen when you put youth in a leadership role. Hopefully, the teachers will be inspired and start thinking, "Wow, I should start having my students do this stuff." Some already have.
What's in the future for the SJEP?
The future is to establish this youth center. ... Most of the (SJEP) students are Chicano, but they see the importance of having something multicultural, because there are limited opportunities for youth of different backgrounds to get together and solve problems. That's something they feel very strongly about.