Changemaking starts with changing the inside

Unveil the power of changemaking skills in a Wyoming school, where Victoria guides students facing adversity towards self-advocacy, empathy, and positive change

Colorful drawing of children inside books
Source: Vitor Massao

A friendly smile framed by long, curly hair, with pinkish tips matching an intense purple wall in her background. That was the image we saw while talking to Victoria, a teacher to 7th and 8th graders at a school in Wyoming, New York, and an ambassador to the Time for Change program.
Victoria works at an 853 school, meaning it is located on a residential campus, serving residential and day students from the county. The school offers a therapeutic program with a focus on social emotional learning. Most of the students are or have been in the foster care system, many coming from low-income families and experiencing issues like food insecurity and different forms of trauma. For this student population aggressive behavior and high school graduation are major challenges that the school has been working to overcome.
Victoria's students deal with complex life situations and have few social-emotional tools to do so. As Victoria became an ambassador for the Time for Change program, she started to use the newly acquired tools in her own teaching while also sharing that knowledge with the other teachers, offering new resources to that educational space and to the students.
She recognizes the value of learning changemaking skills from a young age and has been reflecting on her role as an adult ally who can support her students to grow as changemakers. As Victoria explains, “we have a tendency to put kids in a place where they feel like they're not allowed to make decisions and they don't have a voice. So, giving kids some autonomy and the skills for self-advocacy can make such a huge difference in how they grow up, especially if we start from a very young age”.
She considers changemaking skills to be a powerful tool for self-development and especially powerful for the kids she works with. “Changemaking skills not only teaches them how to do that in the education setting, but also in their lives” Victoria shares. “For my population specifically, by the time they're 12 they feel like there is absolutely nothing they can say or do to gain control over their circumstances and their lives. Giving kids a chance to have a voice and be their own changemaker has such a positive impact on their emotional wellbeing and their ability to self-advocate.” And she has plenty of examples to illustrate that.
With one of her students, a young boy who had been in several different residential placements, Victoria had the chance to work individually, teaching and practicing some of the changemaking skills. From that experience he started to advocate for himself in his residential unit and he got moved to a different program of his choice, where he showed much more progress. He also used his negotiation and advocacy skills to discuss his case with the Department of Social Services so he could get more contact with his little sister and her adoptive parents, who are now pursuing his adoption.
Empathy has also improved among students. Often a 7th grade class taught by Victoria can have both students reading at a 10th grade level and students that can’t yet read their names. Those learning gaps can create animosity among students. As they learned changemaking skills they grew more empathic towards each other’s different learning paces. “Giving the kids the skills to build a team together understanding that they all have strengths and weaknesses that they can build on develops those deeper communication skills”, says Victoria. With these new tools Victoria’s students have been developing writing, communication and empathy skills, learning more about themselves and communicating their needs in a non-aggressive way. “A lot of the changes have been internal,” Victoria explains. “How am I feeling in this moment and how can I respond to my peers in a way that helps them without me hurting them and hurting myself in the process?”.
Ultimately, mastering the changemaking skills has been changing the way students feel about themselves and about their school in a movement that can only grow. A student who arrived late to the school year and was showing disruptive behavior started making his way into Victoria’s classroom and refusing to leave, even though he was not her student. She welcomed him to her cohort, but the boy’s behavior got more aggressive, he was not attending appointments with the psychiatric or social worker teams and refused to take his medication. After working closely with Victoria over the changemaking skills, he started to better express his needs. His medication was better dosed after he expressed what he didn't want to take. He has also built the skills to find staff that will advocate for him when he's unable to put what he wants into words. Even after an aggressive outbreak he would then be able to understand what he did and think it through, using the mindset poster map as a resource. He now reflects on what he can change in the future in his immediate actions but also in relation to his life situation. Victoria says they have come to a place where he can now think "I'm not stuck on this campus right now. I live here. This is my home currently, but I have the ability to make that change myself. I'm not a victim of the circumstances". He is now more committed to classes, as he knows he has the ability to make improvements in his own program to get the skills that he needs.
Empathy, communication, teamwork, leadership and learning to take action are fundamental for creating initiatives that can change our reality. And that change can start on the individual level. Victoria remembers one of the biggest achievements among her students after developing the changemaking abilities. It is the story of a girl who struggled a lot. She had aggressive behavior, got into fights, was very outspoken in a negative fashion and was away from her home for years. Using the changemaking resources she was able to find her voice and channel it for her own strengthening and success. She discovered she had the ability to make the change. She wrote a poem about her life as a black child and was published in the young writers USA Competition. Empowered with new communication skills she got back in contact with her mother and started advocating for herself with the department of social services. She created an action plan describing how she would meet her goals and today she is back home with her mother.
These stories illustrate how every person can apply creative solutions to address problems in their communities and in their own lives. By learning and mastering changemaking skills we all have the power to be changemakers.