Principal Wisdom Amouzou teaches students that they are the leaders they’ve been waiting for
Students join Empower co-founder and Director of Innovation Olivia Jones (standing second from left).
Photo courtesy of Empower.
Aurora is the most diverse city in the state and ranks 17th among the most diverse cities in the country, according to a 2020 survey by U.S. News & World Report.
Students in Aurora Public Schools (APS) come from more than 130 countries and speak more than 160 languages, according to the district, and as of 2018, 19.9% of Aurora’s residents were born outside of the U.S., compared with a national average of 13.7%.
Amouzou, who is one of these residents, entered APS at age 10 after growing up in Lomé, Togo. He arrived two grade levels ahead of his peers and had only one Black male teacher throughout his time in the district, he says.
As The New York Times reports, there is a significant body of research stating that “students tend to benefit from having teachers who look like them, especially nonwhite students.” Yet while students of color make up 85% of the APS population, faculty of color represent only 20% of the district’s educators, Chalkbeat Colorado reports.
This trend persists at the highest levels of educational organizations, as Amouzou found after graduating from CU Boulder to begin his teaching career in 2013.
His first position was at a Denver charter school led, he says, by a white American male in his 30s named Chris. Next he taught at the African Leadership Academy in Roodepoort, South Africa, where the CEO was, again, a white American male in his 30s named Chris.
“I constantly went to organizations that were basically led by folks who didn’t have that lived experience,” he says. “And then you see the hypocrisy and the tensions that their organizations set up.”
Fueled by those experiences, Amouzou and Nathan Pai Schmitt launched their own education nonprofit in 2015, which aims to create a more equitable and inclusive system of education rooted in community and student empowerment.
Originally called HackSchool, the non-profit was renamed HadaNõu Collective––“a combination of our families’ languages meaning ‘to humbly offer a solution,’” Pai Schmitt told the Donnell-Kay Foundation.
In 2016 they sent a student to the White House as one of former President Barack Obama’s Kid Science Advisors and in 2017 they earned Teach for America’s Social Innovation Award.
That October, Amouzou found himself in a coffee shop with two friends from his early teaching days: Jones, whose language arts class once led a workshop with Amouzou’s seventh graders, and her former student Ariana Villalovos, who now teaches ninth grade ethnic studies at Empower.
Together they dreamed up a school created for the community, by the community. And after nearly two years of meeting with students, parents and community members to develop a plan, they submitted their application in 2018. Of the eight organizations that expressed interest that year, Empower is the only one to open its doors.
Students at Empower are taught early and often that transformative community change is theirs for the making.
Photo by Olivia Jones.
While many organizations are willing to invest resources in students like those at Empower, they rarely give students a voice in deciding how those resources are used.
“So let’s start to restructure that and flip that on its head,” Amouzou says. Students at the school are taught early and often that transformative community change is theirs for the making. During a two-hour block called FLOW, they research and propose solutions to real-world problems. And this summer, two of them earned $5,000 each in contracts to consult with a local foundation.
“I know that I’m going to come to school today and I’m not just going to do physics,” student Maurice Robinson says in a video. “I know that I’m going to come to school today and we’re going to talk about physics and then we’re going to talk about the displacement of people from Aurora.”
This idea of the school as an integral part of the community was put to the test when the pandemic hit. As of September, Empower had raised $221,290 and had granted $141,524 directly to families––relief efforts that fall under the headline “love in action” on the school’s website, where language is intentionally used to create a sense of intimacy, Amouzou says.
“For me, one of the biggest things I took away from the Department of Communication is really understanding framing discourse and the power of rhetoric,” he says. “When you understand the vicious legacy of these intersectional systems of oppression, you understand that one of the things that is most stripped from our systems––especially in this country––is a sense of intimacy. Most people go through systems and feel dehumanized; they feel objectified.”
Empower is led by a Community Design Team that meets regularly and includes students, families, community members and educators.
Students serve on committees responsible for:
- Professional development
- School culture
That particular lesson stuck for a reason.
As he took classes on communication and social justice, Amouzou realized that the same issues plaguing his external world were festering internally. While presenting at TEDxBoulder in 2019, he described how therapy helped him identify the ways that, as an immigrant, the world’s history played into his own history of self-sabotage and avoiding intimacy.
Self-love and personal empowerment shouldn’t be radical qualities. But in a country where messages of racism, sexism, bigotry, xenophobia, ageism and classism infuse our everyday lives, they are.
If we’re looking for people with the imagination, lived experience and determination required to overhaul centuries of corrosive history and build a more equitable future, Amouzou says, these are the qualities we must cultivate in students––the seeds from which the buds of innovation will bloom.
After all, the purpose and power within each of us is inherent. They need only to be named and embraced.
“Growing up, I thought my name was a privilege and a curse,” Amouzou says, referencing his first name, Wisdom. “As an adult, I see it as mainly a gift. Every time people said my name, they were affirming me.”
“Growing up, I thought my name was a privilege and a curse,” Amouzou says, referencing his first name, Wisdom.
“As an adult, I see it as mainly a gift. Every time people said my name, they were affirming me.”