Oct 25, 2021

Intermediary Insights Series: The Importance of Listening to Young Peoples’ Needs with Fahren Johnson of Greentrike

Classmates looking at computer screen

By Ebony Lambert, National Comprehensive Center 

Greentrike is an education and advocacy organization that operates outreach programming, preschool, virtual programming, and two museums in Tacoma, Washington. This summer, we talked with Fahren Johnson, Greentrike’s director of strategic initiatives and leader of the Out of School Time Intermediary (OSTI). She spoke about the impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown communities, and how Greentrike has supported young people in addressing systemic inequities. 



I know that Greentrike offers a variety of programming in the Tacoma community. What perspective do you bring to this work?


Expanded learning opportunities are not new. As a foster child, my foster mother ensured I plugged into spaces that helped me process trauma and find my spark, passion, and interests. Being in a space with a caring adult, where you can enrich and spark learning, is so important for young people. I advocate for all kids to have access to quality, culturally relevant, and equitable ELO programs, especially Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC).

Initially, I built community school models for eight years, primarily fostering coordination and developing professional learning communities. Then I moved to social and emotional learning (SEL) research under the Wallace Foundation’s Partnership for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative, which has been the most impactful and hardest work. And to be clear, the hardest work was getting the adults to model SEL for students; we really had to work on the adult practice. I also bring a focus on racial equity, because if they’re not culturally responsive, SEL practices can do harm, too.


How has Greentrike supported kids this summer?


We launched what we call “Extended Learning Opportunity, or ELO summer clubs.” They are youth-led, with high school and college-aged students leading social justice-themed book clubs that tie into interactive activities. This started with two book clubs last year, and exploded, so we kept it youth-led to help develop our older participants who are interested in youth development, racial equity, and social justice work and leadership. We wanted to keep them practicing their leadership skills, while also tying the work back into our K-8 space, particularly for youth of color. We also have a program called Play to Learn, which starts in early learning pre-K, and plan to launch Play to Learn 2.0 which will embed itself at school sites and support K-5th grade students. Currently, this program partners with caregivers who come into the space to support students in SEL competencies such as self and social awareness and relationship building. 

Greentrike is new to serving BIPOC communities in an intentional way, and is currently embarking on what we call “JEDAI” work —that’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, Access, and Inclusion. The work of the OSTI has a racial equity focus and is a great addition to the work that is already happening organizationally. We needed to think about how we show up for our communities, how we can build and design with a racial equity lens and not just add it as an afterthought. So our summer and school-based ELO programs have a racial equity lens built into the programming.


How did you come to understand the needs in a community and craft programs and services to meet that need? What was the process, and how did you make sure you were hearing the voices of historically marginalized populations?


The first thing I did was talk to young people, and the biggest issue I saw was tech equity. I asked our young people what they needed to stay connected to learning, and many of them said “I want to keep my ELO program.” But we had kids that didn’t have laptops for quite some time. The biggest gap was in our brown and Black communities. Many of them didn't have quality broadband or had laptops that were not in the best shape. We had to pivot our work into an online environment and align with the school district, which can be hard because of the systems and platforms they use. Despite the technical challenges, we made it work!

I also went to our philanthropic organizations and others that wanted to help meet immediate needs. We know that philanthropic funding can be very slow moving, but we couldn’t wait six weeks. We had to go get laptops and families needed broadband to stay connected. So we reached out and applied a bit of pressure to get our philanthropic partners to think differently about how they fund intermediaries to be able to keep our young people connected.

We started a campaign to improve access for our most vulnerable kids who we knew didn't have internet or laptops, and it started with the youth voice first. I always start there, because if I connect to a young person, I connect to their family, right? And so I built relationships with grandmas, uncles, parents...whomever was the caregiver. But my first touch point is always with the youth, to ensure we are centering this work around our young people’s needs.


You've talked a little bit about how the challenges in Tacoma are symptoms of larger problems. Can you say more about that and how it influences your work?


I did a two-day training with the Racial Equity Institute. They use this analogy where a person is walking along the street. They walk by a lake, see a dead fish in the water, and they think, “I wonder what's wrong with that fish.” A couple days later, they walk down again and multiple fish are dead in the water. Then they think, “I wonder what's wrong with that water.” The point is that you can treat a lake or you can try to treat one fish, or one symptom of a racist system. But if you don't get underneath, into the groundwater, and unpack what's being put into that water, you really can't make a whole lot of difference. And it absolutely changed how I looked at my work.

Communities change systems. Young people change systems. It’s our job to equip them with the strategies to do that. At my organization, we have not accomplished half of what I know we can do, but we're making progress. I will continue to train our young people to apply pressure to the system, but also to give them tools to do it in a way where they're heard and they're able to move the work forward.

Up next in this series, we’ll share another in-depth Q&A from a leading OST/ELO organization about their work, experiences, challenges, and expertise in the field.

Read the other blogs in this series: Intermediary Insights Series: Building Infrastructure for OST/ELO Ecosystems with Byron Sanders of Big Thought and How do Community Organizations Support COVID-19 Recovery Efforts? Introducing the Intermediary Insights Series