Published: Dec. 12, 2019 By
PA coaches soc

CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program is creating innovative pathways for students of color and first generation college students to become leaders on campus and in their communities. Public Achievement’s (PA) undergraduate students at CU Boulder serve as “coaches” (experiential educators) with local middle and high school-aged youth in Boulder and Lafayette. Together, they work to create and implement “community action projects” to address pressing social justice issues.

PA offers a unique model of collaboration and leadership development. Rather than seeing K-12 students as "less experienced" or "needing help," CU undergrads build on the strengths of K-12 students to practice democracy together and make real changes in schools and communities.

According to Public Achievement Director Charla Agnoletti, "Our CU Boulder staff, student coaches and teaching assistants talk about power dynamics all the time. We discuss power, privilege, our identities, and how we might be unaware and could unintentionally perpetuate dynamics we don’t want to replicate.” PA takes great care to avoid “saviorism” - that is, perpetuating inequality and oppression by placing people with privilege - based on race, education, class and other indicators - as the ones who have the knowledge and are guiding the learning process.

Under Agnoletti’s leadership and vision, PA has developed structures and systems within the program to make it more accessible, equitable, and inviting to non-traditional leaders (specifically, students of color, first generation students and lower income students) into the program. One specific strategy PA offers is a concurrent enrollment option for their semester-long “Renewing Democracy in Communities and Schools” course, which allows Centaurus high school and Front Range community college students the opportunity to take this CU class alongside traditional CU undergraduates for credit.

Mariam Guadalupe Lara is a concurrent enrollment student from Front Range Community College. She plans to major in Sociology and minoring in ethnic studies. “The more I get involved in PA the more I find myself and my voice which is helping me become the strong Latina leader I’ve always wanted to be,” Lara explains. 

“Being Latina, I grew up having few people of color as leaders. As I go through my leadership programs, I have noticed that as a society we need those Leaders who come from different backgrounds. We need those leaders that we can relate to and who are like us,” Lara says.

CU Boulder undergraduate student Jason Rivera, reflects on the ways his five years of involvement with PA are shaping his own leadership trajectory. Rivera graduated from Centaurus High School in Lafayette last year, and coaches other students at his former high school now as a first year Integrative Physiology major. “I think PA is flipping the script with how older students mentor younger students… I also believe that PA helps create pathways for students of color, especially in leadership roles… Students of color don't have much of an opportunity to express their thoughts and opinions on issues that are happening in their society because they don't have an outlet for it, but I believe that PA is starting to become that outlet,” Rivera explains.

Soraya Latiff, PA’s Program Coordinator who also came up through the program as a first generation student of color at CU Boulder, says there aren’t enough spaces that center students of color for their deep cultural wealth and knowledge. “Programs like PA exist because the system we are in does not do the work. Much like society at large, in many critical spaces within educational institutions, not all stories are equally acknowledged, affirmed or valued. Helping cultivate spaces where our K-12 students collaborate with undergraduates and staff of color who share similar identities, experiences, and values to them, and who are learning the tools of mobilizing those experiences as information and power, is change-making.”

Agnoletti underscores that aligning university students of color to coach younger students of color is no accident, and that it requires constant conversations and intentional action: “We’ve worked to center voices of young leaders of color and of women. That’s how we’ve attracted more students of color and women to doing the work that we do.” 

She continues, “We also just listen to the youth. We listen to young people. I kept hearing over and over again from our middle and high school students - ‘give us better coaches!’ I started to see who they considered great coaches and I saw they wanted other first generation students, students who understand their cultural, linguistic and class backgrounds. These are often the strongest leaders in our program.”

One of PA’s strong leaders is Erika Orona, a current Americorps member and PA program lead at CU Boulder. Orona is a recent graduate of CU Boulder. Initially, she joined Public Achievement as a 3rd year college student after transferring to CU Boulder from Front Range Community College. 

Growing up in Longmont, Orona says she “didn’t identify as a leader.” However, PA “helped me to see all the different qualities that a leader can have, not just the ‘typical’ leader.”

Orona describes her pathway to discovering her own leadership skills. “First I worked with PA as a coach, then I became a teaching assistant and now that I’ve graduated I’m working as part of the PA staff through my Americorps position. These opportunities have helped me develop a lot of different skills working with students, especially first generation students and students of color like me. I’ve learned that listening is a very important skill for a leader to have. I’m a more quiet person than a lot of typical leaders you might see, and I’ve learned that listening and incorporating feedback into the program has been helpful, as well as my being able to engage quiet students who aren’t always as engaged.”

For Agnoletti, seeing students like Lara, Rivera, and Orona develop as leaders makes all the hard work, ongoing conversations about the best ways to make the program more equitable and inclusive, and thoughtful program design and implementation worth it. 

“At each level of PA we are opening up new opportunities for new kinds of leadership, new potential,” Agnoletti says. “It’s an important way to make lasting change.”