What started with a sense of hope and excitement has now grown into a full-fledged organization made up of energetic, talented and committed young people whose efforts target topics big and small, from eco-education to mental health. Rochester Community Initiative (RCI) began with students involved in crafting an equity policy for Rochester Public Schools (RPS). Recognizing the value and impact of their collective, their vision moved beyond their schools to a community where the scope of equity would be expanded to include all individuals.
RCI began during the tumultuous summer of 2020 and has coalesced into a sustained core of youth activists. “We were captivated by the extraordinary potential and energy that youth hold and the impact we could make, and from the beginning, I knew I wanted to be part of this work,” says Yasmin Ali, one of the early members.
“The whole point of RCI is to create lasting change in our community, and the first step to having that is an educated community,” says RCI member Sophia Martinez-Fervenza. Through community events, programs and projects, RCI has done just that. They have already left a lasting impact on Rochester, despite initial doubt and concern from adults and their peers regarding their ability to influence change and advance equity in Rochester.
The list of activities that the group has undertaken would be impressive for adults. Knowing that RCI is comprised of students makes this list even more impressive. They have successfully engaged the community in joining them to explore important conversations with key leaders such as the “Children First Rochester: A Community Conversation on Educating All of our Children,” which featured Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page. Like many of RCI’s activities, this event was collaborative and a partnership with Rochester for Justice and Rochester Diversity Council. Ali says that she is “honored that RCI has been able to provide the missing perspective of youth voice in Rochester”.
The group has also sponsored voting information activities, eco-education lessons and support for ongoing platforms for youth to share their thoughts via Facebook Live dialogues and through ongoing educational events. Their drive to advance equity in the community is a vital part of the organization’s DNA.
Although their portfolio of activities is expansive, RCI has made mental health a focus of their agenda. They remain heavily invested in bringing education on mental health resources to RCI members and their peers.
A key undertaking for the group was a community survey on mental health. The survey sought to gauge mental health status and identify barriers to community access to mental health resources. Most important for RCI is a follow-up effort to create a streamlined process for getting people the care they need by connecting them with mental health care professionals. While the project is still in the works, RCI members remain enthusiastic about the potential impact the survey findings and follow-up actions can have on the community.
RCI may be most known to many in the community for the protests they have held, such as their Black Lives Matter protest in 2020, which brought hundreds of community members together. Yet, after over 18 months of operations, RCI remains committed to their original goal—equity in the public schools, along with a mission of helping to dismantle racism. “I don’t know if racism can ever be fully dismantled; it is something so deeply rooted in our society that there will always be people who are racist and carry different views, but we will continue in our work to help combat racism,” says Martina-Fervenza.
For Reese Rutherford, of all the things that RCI has done, his favorite and what he feels is the most impactful was the opportunity to co-mentor students at Gage Elementary School. “I think that the core diversity and inclusion lessons we went through with the students will truly impact their view on things (diversity and inclusion) and will stick with them for a long time,” he says. Additionally, Rutherford states that he is most proud of being able to speak to faculty in RPS during staff week in August. Reese feels that, “Being able to use my voice and my experiences within RPS to help educators and staff members recognize their biases and grow from them has been an extremely important step in my growing voice. Becoming the ‘teacher’ of the teachers was a great experience.”
“I think what makes RCI so impactful is that we go out, we listen to the community and we try to make change in ways Rochester wants to change,” says Martina-Fervenza. Change and hope—a powerful formula for success of the Rochester Community Initiative.