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Mikayla Johnson, a student from the Navajo Nation, explains her water advocacy work to other youth and mentors involved in the BLTN NextGen initiative.

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Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English Launches Youth Social Action Network

July 31, 2017

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Twenty-one future leaders from around the country came together at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English (BLSE) in Ripton, Vt., earlier this month to launch a new initiative within the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN). Supported by a two-year grant of $400,000 from the Ford Foundation, the new project–BLTN NextGen–is an innovative leadership network for high school students that will engage a diverse cohort of youth as allies and advocates in writing and acting for social and educational change.

“This grant is a tremendous accomplishment for the Bread Loaf School of English," said Middlebury President Laurie Patton. “In supporting Bread Loaf, the Ford Foundation emphasizes the teachers' network as a quietly but deeply effective medium of social change, and creates new places for that network to be planted and grow. And it demonstrates that literary and community leaders can go hand in hand!”

During four packed days from July 12-15, youth teams and community mentors from BLTN NextGen’s six key sites–Lawrence, Mass.; Louisville, Ky.; Atlanta, Ga.; Vermont; rural South Carolina; and the Navajo Nation–participated in workshops, discussions, and planning sessions run by BLTN, BLSE, and Ford Foundation mentors and youth.

Youth explore the use of media kits–provided by the grant–as tools for documenting social issues in their communities. 

“We gathered here to learn from each other, to collect our stories, to share our histories, and to form a powerful network of strong youth leaders,” said Doug Wood, program officer for the Ford Foundation’s Youth Opportunity and Learning Division. Wood is also an alumnus of the BLSE, where he earned a master’s degree.

Since its inception in the 1990s, the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, combined with graduate study at the School of English, has provided year-round support for teachers working to transform themselves, their schools, and their communities. While youth have been at the center of these innovations, BLTN NextGen widens the impact and reach of their voices, making it possible for young people who are especially subject to discrimination to learn from each other as well as from community partners and teachers. “This is their network, their agenda, their lead,” explained BLTN Director Beverly Moss. “Our job, in the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, is to support and learn.”

According to Emily Bartels, BLSE director, as BLTN NextGen youth collaborate over the next two years, they will be poised to take on some of the toughest challenges and inequities within their own communities through an extensive variety of communications.

BLTN NextGen leaders, mentors, staff, and other supporters gather at the end of the kick-off at Bread Loaf’s Vermont campus.

“By demonstrating their own capacities as leaders, researchers, analysts, poets, storytellers, and community documentarians,” says Bartels “BLTN NextGen youth will put their voices at the front and center of public policy debates. Their work will help change dominant narratives that underestimate the talent and potential of vulnerable populations.”

“Given the conditions of our world, we need young people with courage and commitment who also have a strong understanding of their communities,” said Jacqueline Jones Royster, the Atlanta team leader and a member of the BLSE’s Advisory Board.

Ultimately the project will look and speak uniquely to the role of networks in reducing inequality, says Dixie Goswami, director of BLTN NextGen. Goswami observed that by the end of the four-day launch, the BLTN NextGen youth had already found power in connection.

One participant, Akwelle Quaye, from Louisville, said, “Within two hours of being surrounded by all the incredible individuals at NextGen, I was drafting a poem and planning a documentary. Seeing everyone put themselves out there for the communities and ideas they care about made me want to do the same.”

“I’ve never been part of anything like this,” added Lily Lopez from Lawrence, Mass. “It’s amazing how great this network has become in such a short time. It’s allowing us to think big. We’re starting a movement.”

–Photos by Yeager "Teddy" Anderson ’13.5