Cendi Trujillo Tena is soft-spoken and humble, but as soon as she starts talking about the youth she works with at Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), her eyes light up, and you can hear the passion in her voice. Trujillo Tena has worked with young people at other organizations in the city but explains that their voices aren’t always honored or valued. However, at LIT, the number-one goal is to put power in the hands of the youth and teach them how to advocate for themselves.
The young organization started in January 2018, fueled by the issue of the school-to-prison pipeline. At least 12 Milwaukee schools have metal detectors and law enforcement officers who are enforcing school policies with the use of restraints and seclusions. Those schools predominantly serve students of color. Many see the added security as an answer to the violence and disruptions occurring in the schools, but the founders of LIT see it differently.
In April 2018, the organization partnered with the Center of Popular Democracy to publish a report that looks at the outcomes of these extra security policies. They found that there were much higher expulsion rates among black and brown youth and those with learning disabilities. According to the report, 80% of suspensions were of black students, and 85% of referrals to law enforcement were black students, but only 53% of total students enrolled were black.
Let that sink in for a moment. As a student of color, you are far more likely to be suspended or get involved in the criminal justice system. The report shows suspensions lead to lower academic performance, a higher likelihood of dropping out and a higher chance of being entangled in the criminal justice system. Rather than tackling these issues alone, Trujillo Tena and the staff at LIT decided that the youth being affected should be the ones making the decisions.
When Trujillo Tena came on to the team, she emphasized that “the youth have to be in every step of the process.” LIT now has chapters of students advocating for their rights located in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) high schools with high security. The leaders in the organization start by building trust with the youth. Then, they teach the students about the school-to-prison pipeline and show them that these practices are unjust. Together, they have created the Youth Power Agenda—an action plan that presents an alternative to harsh discipline practices. The adults let the youth take it from there.
“They are the ones who decide what they want to bring up and what they see as the solutions to these issues,” Trujillo Tena says. LIT simply provides a platform to amplify their voices, such as taking the students to Madison, Wisc., to let them speak with their elected officials. Trujillo Tena and the staff understand that the youth’s experiences are real, and that their values matter just as much as any adult’s. “I let them lead, and they know what they are doing.”
Learn more about LIT by visiting litmke.org