Heller Hosts System-Involved Youth at Summer Transition Hope Institute

July 28, 2019

Posters created by Boston Public Schools students for their culminating projects
Posters created by Boston Public Schools students for their culminating projects
Posters created by Boston Public Schools students for their culminating projects

This summer, the Heller School piloted the Summer Transition Hope Institute for Boston Public Schools students who have been involved in the juvenile justice system.

“When you meet these kids, you see not only how smart they are but how passionate they are about trying to change society,” says Associate Dean for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Maria Madison. “The best way to do that is for them to enter into a nurturing environment to help them get there.”

That’s why she helped assemble a team of Heller students and alumni to organize Heller’s program, which kicked off a series of week-long programs for system-involved BPS students at Boston-area colleges throughout the summer.  

Working with Janelle Ridley of BPS, who created the Hope Institute in partnership with Lesley University in summer 2018, and Roz Kabrhel, a lecturer in Brandeis’ legal studies program, they brought ten students to Heller during the week of July 1. Bria Price, MPP'19, spearheaded the curriculum development and program closing ceremony, along with Max Brodsky, MBA'20, and Madison notes that "the team is particularly grateful for Price's leadership."

Each day, the students, ages 13 to 18, attended workshops on different topics, including media representation of people of color, the complexity of identity and radical justice. In addition, they also toured the campus and shared meals with Brandeis faculty, students and alumni. The week culminated with a hashtag project on a topic important to each student, from gun violence to black maternal health, which they presented to the rest of the group.

“If Heller’s motto, knowledge advancing social justice, is about closing the disparity gap, we should be meeting with youth who face a lot of challenges,” Madison says. “They learned a lot in just the week they were here, but we also learned a lot from them as well, breaking down stigmas in our school of social policy.”

Below, several organizers share their reflections on the Hope Institute:

Max Brodsky, MBA’20

“We wanted to encourage the students to talk about issues they thought were important and combine that with the research and experts here at Heller. The curriculum I wrote with Bria Price, MPP’19, was built around that idea: student-led issues. We brought in Professor Raj Sampath to discuss his journey and complex identity issues. Aaron Bray ’13, who’s now a criminal defense attorney, came to speak about media representation. Leading into the Fourth of July, Dr. Madison led a presentation on the meaning of radical justice, and the question of who built America.

One of my favorite parts of working with youth is the hyper-attention to feelings of injustice and inequality. We intentionally chose projects for them to be working on where they were the experts and we were just offering a space for them to do it.

A big question for our team was: How can we show universities are places for everybody? We wanted to say, ‘You are welcome. This is a place for you to learn and grow.’ During a tour of the university, we heard some of the students say they could see themselves here. That was great to hear.” 

Ify Jekeme, MS GPHM’19

“The best part of the Hope Institute was how the students responded. One of them mentioned how they felt really accepted in the space that was created. They felt supported. Their voices were amplified.

We served dinner each day, and that was a great informal time to talk to them about their interests. We discussed majors in college. Dean Weil ate with the students one night, and he talked about how he dropped out of high school. That really made a connection with the kids. One of them referenced that a few days later. He said maybe someone who had a rocky path could become a lawyer one day. It was really inspiring that they were able to see that.

The more we got into this project, the more I realized the weight of the impact we could have on these students. Especially in this age group, because it’s such a vulnerable time in their lives. A lot of Heller’s mission is about social justice and giving back to the community. Working with the students of the Hope Institute, who are from historically underrepresented and underserved communities, we learned from them ways we can be impactful in the work we do. It puts a real face to the work done across programs at Heller. It touches on public health, income inequality, and other issues that are woven into our classes. This project really helped us put a lot of what we do in theory into practice.”

Jordan Walder, MBA/MPP’20

“My work at Heller has been the intersection of gender-based violence and punishment, school pushout and the prison system. How unresolved trauma often causes people, especially girls and women, to be pushed out of schools and criminalized because of their behavior. The Hope Institute seemed like an amazing opportunity to give students who have not necessarily seen a different pathway exposure to something different than what they’ve been expected to do.

I’ve never worked on a team that communicated so well. We had a tight turnaround of just about a month to pull it all together, but the whole Heller School helped us in various ways, from admissions to career services.

I really hope the students have a great experience at every college they visit and that they learn everywhere. I hope they realize there are a lot more possibilities, that Brandeis is just one of the places where they could succeed. I want them to know that they have people who are here to support them, no matter what their path is.”

Winnie Rugamba, MA COEX’20

“It was impossible not to fall in love with the youth and the heart of the project. Our biggest challenge was figuring out, ‘What will work for them?’ ‘What do they want from this?’ and ‘How can we keep them engaged?’ We slowly figured it out by creating different sessions and presenting them in engaging styles. We reminded the youth of who they are, how they see themselves and how the world sees them, and saw them slowly open up and trust us with their dreams and desires, despite their realities. One student said he had no idea someone could make it to Harvard once they've been in prison in response to one of the speaker's stories. I pray that a project like this will spark something they can hold onto.”

Aaron Bray ’13, Attorney at Roxbury Defenders

“I was excited to participate in the HOPE Institute because I wanted to help inspire a group of teens from my neighborhood to dream about life beyond the block. I wanted them to see someone from their neighborhood that had transcended the streets and found a way to thrive.

The most important lesson I learned is how powerful it is when adults take a back seat and listen as young people dialogue about societal issues. The youth are far wiser and more well-informed on these issues than most adults realize—but we rarely give them a platform to share their views with us.

My hope for these students is that they approach the upcoming school year with the same vigor and thirst for knowledge with which they approached the HOPE Institute. If these students bring that same energy to their high school classrooms, the sky’s the limit for them.” 

Rigat Keleta, MA SID/COEX’20

My previous professional background as an educator for children and young adults has taught me the significance of seeds of hope and mentorship in their lives, and the fact the learning process is a two-way channel. So when I learned about the Hope Summer Institute and its goals for these youth, I wanted to take part with the hope that I might have a little thing that I can contribute and also learn. 

The most rewarding part of the week was to be able to see growing confidence and vision in their lives. Their enthusiasm and hope of their future even though they very aware of the failure of the system that surrounds them, hence their capacity to see beyond what surrounds them. But this also gives us the responsibility of following up their progress. After all, they have already seen various similar initiatives who didn't check on them when the environment around them was them something different about their lives and prospect. 

Going forward, I hope these students have consistent mentorship programs from their community and public institutions that follow up their progress. They need continuous scholarships and pre-college projects that secure their future through education and needed skills. Above all, I hope they find a formidable space where they can build and utilize their potential and be individuals who give back and fight for justice in making a difference in their community." 

Dean David Weil

"I was very moved by my interactions with the participants of the Hope Institute and the organizers, both because of the individual stories I heard and their aspirations to overcome the significant challenges they face. I'm inspired by the students' drive to better themselves and their communities. I had the opportunity to have dinner with them and share my own unorthodox path from high school to higher education. It was a wonderful experience that reinvigorated my commitment to lead Heller in serving underrepresented youth in the Boston area and beyond." 

Stacey Jones, Brandeis Student Account Representative

"My initial reason for being part of the Hope Institute was to simply give students hope. These students look like students in my neighborhood and have had experiences that I can relate to. They looked like young people that I see walking down the streets in my neighborhood. They've experienced things that some of which I have experienced too. My goal was to give them something that would carry them on their journeys in life. Even if currently they couldn't see it, and even if right now, they didn't feel it. As a person of faith, my mission is to give out what was once given to me. I am honored that I was able to be used a facilitator to foster conversations that helped students see themselves in the right light and to see their own potential and not be defined by their past or discouraged by their current reality. My goal was to give them hope that will carry them into their destiny."