A Conversation with Chad Milner & Hector Acevedo
Interview by Aaron Devine
With its roots firmly set in both the American Civil Rights Movement and Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Young People’s Project (YPP) promotes social justice using math literacy. Its programs have spread nationwide, teaching high school students to teach themselves and instilling in college students the value of giving back. YPP’s philosophy is that in math is opportunity and inside every young person is a world of difference, a building block of our shared community. Chad Milner is the YPP Site Director for Greater Boston and National Coordinator of Programs. Hector Acevedo is a YPP Youth Organizer and product of the program. I sat down with Chad and Hector to talk about YPP’s civil rights history, the value of investing in youth, and how math literacy can be a gateway to solving greater social needs.
NPi: This all started as The Algebra Project. How did the Young People’s Project come to be, and what’s the relationship between the two today?
CM: The YPP is an outgrowth of The Algebra Project, which was started in Cambridge in 1982 by Bob Moses. Bob was a former civil rights worker with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the 60s and after that got into the education and mathematics arena. He was over at Harvard working on his PhD and he received a MacArthur Genius Grant. At that point he had four kids and they were all in public schools in Cambridge. His oldest daughter, Maisha, was in the seventh or eighth grade at the King Open School on Putnam Ave. He had visited her classroom and they weren’t offering algebra at the time. Bob was also a math teacher around the time he got involved with SNCC… At the time there was a test for any kids entering Cambridge Rindge and Latin, which was and still is the only public high school in Cambridge that allowed students to enter into the college prep track for mathematics… They weren’t offering algebra at the King Open School at the time, so there wasn’t a way for kids to get into that college track.
NPi: This was typical of public schools around Boston?
CM: Right, this was very typical. So [Bob] went into King Open School and asked if he could work with the teacher to offer algebra… They had a meeting with the parents and asked how many parents would be interested in their child taking algebra. The other question was how many parents would be interested in offering it for all the children. Interestingly enough, all the parents said that they wanted their child to take algebra, but very few said that they thought all the children should take algebra. So that’s kind of predictive of the direction of the organization. Bob said, “OK, I’m only going to come in if I can teach all the students.” That’s how The Algebra Project began. How do we create an opportunity for all students to access this math? What do we need to do at the curriculum level? What do we need to do at the community level in order for this to happen?
The Algebra Project started in the King Open School and over the next 10 years spread across the country and became a national organization that looked at reforming not just the curriculum, but also the involvement of teachers and parents and community members in the process of infusing the classrooms with math literacy. [This was] with the goal of really getting kids on the college track by high school. I should say that I was an Algebra Project student myself. All of Bob’s four kids went through The Algebra Project in Cambridge, along with a large cohort of other Cambridge kids. In the mid-90s, a lot of those kids were just finishing college. Bob’s sons were two of those kids, and at the time, Bob had taken The Algebra Project to Jackson, Mississippi. Omo, Bob’s oldest son who is now the Executive Director of YPP, was one of The Algebra Project kids who went down to Mississippi to work with Bob.
There were two things that birthed YPP. One of them was the recognition by those recent college grads that the work needed to extend outside the classroom. It wasn’t just about what was happening in school; there was an opportunity for this work to happen outside of school… The other observation was that [students needed to be involved in teaching other students]. At the time, graphing calculators had come out—the Ti-83s—and they were starting to put them in the classrooms. In Jackson they tried to train the teachers how to use the calculators, and some of the kids were getting the technology more quickly than the teachers. So they thought, why don’t we create workshops where kids can teach other kids how to use the calculators? That was the first iteration of YPP—graphing calculator labs where a group [of older students taught] younger kids how to use the technology.
Fast forward five to eight years later and YPP is now its own separate 501c(3) [nonprofit organization]. The work came back from Jackson to Cambridge and a lot of the folks who were involved with The Algebra Project started to work with YPP. The model has pretty much stayed the same. It’s shifted a little bit in that for the past five years we’ve trained high school and college students to be Math Literacy Workers (MLWs). Once they’re MLWs, they go into after-school programs or community centers and facilitate workshops for younger students based on mathematics… There’s still a connection to The Algebra Project in that a lot of the material has been adapted by YPP to be used in their workshops. Some of it has been shifted and shaped to be a better fit for that environment and those facilitators… But the basic pedagogy behind the content is pretty much the same as that of The Algebra Project. And that is an experience-based process in which all students share in this common game or activity for example, and the math is drawn out.
NPi: One of the great things about YPP’s work is how it’s holistic. You’re not only reaching out to these kids, but also training them to help one another and teaching the teachers. The whole community benefits from that. How much of that was part of the plan for YPP from the conception?
CM: That’s definitely always been a huge part of how we function. And a lot of that comes from the foundation that Bob Moses brought in terms of his community organizing experience working with Ella Baker and this idea that the change has to come from the bottom up. You have to enable people to help them to change their own lives and their own communities. Creating the demand at the bottom level is really important, and that’s always how we’ve moved.
NPi: How have you been successful at doing that? What’s been key to helping The Algebra Project and YPP stand the test of time so far?
CM: I think Hector’s story really speaks to what the process is like for a young person coming in.
HA: My involvement in YPP began in the sixth grade when there was a dismantling of the bilingual program at the Longfellow School. I was quickly placed in an all-English speaking class. I was having a rough transition from bilingual courses to all-English courses… I was having particular trouble in math. I was young, and I was coming from El Salvador learning a brand new language. And I was blessed at Cambridge Public Schools. I wasn’t one of those students that fell through the cracks. I became involved with YPP when I first met London Hardy, [one of YPP’s facilitators]… It was a breath of fresh air to see somebody who wasn’t just a teacher, somebody who came from outside of the school… I basically grew up in the program. I became a participant, a counselor-in-training, a Math Literacy Worker… To me, this organization has become a family.
What keeps the program going is that we build relationships—strong familial ties with young people… The Young People’s Project really is a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement with people from the bottom working up. It’s an alliance between the bottom and the top… I was telling someone the other day that I needed to get a bicycle because a lot of the work we do involves walking to different places, whether it’s a youth center or a site, and it just reminds me of the actual walking that many of the civil rights activists had to do in Mississippi in order to get people to register to vote. And the thing about YPP is we’ve been able to bridge the gap between math literacy and social justice. We’ve incorporated into our work that math is key. You can relate math to race, class, gender, sexuality—all of these different forms of oppression.
NPi: Why is that? What is it about math?
HA: Math is an opportunity. [In our society] jobs have become really based on technology. So you need math for the basic things… and then you also need math if you want to become a computer programmer, an investment banker, an accountant… And math hasn’t really been taught adequately to students who come from low-income backgrounds.
NPi: Why doesn’t math make it to these public schools, like the King Open School in 1982? Why wasn’t it there? Because I was taught that the Three Rs—reading, writing, and arithmetic—are supposedly the foundation of education.
CM: I think who moves into the conceptual math or the college-math level tracks has traditionally been [divided into] two tracks… And 40 years ago you didn’t need the same preparation that you do now to be middle class, to be a functional citizen, to be engaged… I think moving from the industrial age to the information age, the role of mathematics has really changed. So the schools, particularly the public schools in the city, weren’t prepared for that. A lot of them still aren’t. This project is addressing that need, which is a universal, global issue. It’s not a local issue.
Also, I think there’s a symbolic value to it. You’re organizing young people around an issue. And the issue happens to be important. It happens to be mathematics and [there are] reasons why that’s good. But then there’s also this idea that in order to do anything you’ve got to be able to organize. The mathematics is a conduit or a gateway in order to do that. When you talk to the young people, some of them will talk about math and then others will say, “I just have never been asked to teach somebody something else. I feel like it’s okay for me to be smart, for me to do well in school.” So there are a lot of identity issues that we’re addressing with the program as well.
NPi: You’ve developed a couple of programs in the last couple of years—the Finding Our Folk and Quality Education as a Constitutional Right programs. The Algebra Project has been around for a few decades, but these are relatively new. Can you speak about how these came about?
HA: My experience with YPP has been incredible. I used to watch Bob Moses speak and that’s when the relationship between math and social justice started [becoming clear to me]. I started to understand that you can relate math in terms of race and class. We’re moving toward creating a space where people can come together and organize… It’s really a voice coming from young people and creating that space for them to come up with ideas or events or topics that they want to talk about that they’re not allowed to talk about in school or amongst their families or their peers… We believe that every student as a human being, as a citizen of this country, deserves a quality and adequate education, not just the regular one-size-fits-all education.
NPi: It’s really cool that The Algebra Project started here in Cambridge. Hector, your family story took a new beginning here in Cambridge. What are the needs right now in this community?
CM: We’re a part of that larger picture. We have young people in Cambridge, and we started to work in Boston a couple years ago working out of Fields Corner. Both of those communities has its own needs, and YPP is an outlet, an alternative for young people. We acknowledge the hardships, and we’re going to take you as you come… YPP doesn’t say we can fix all problems. For example, [we aren’t able] to help you get housing. But I think the fact that we’re able to meet people halfway is really important.
NPi: Are these the same challenges as 10 or 20 years ago?
CM: I see them as a lot of the same challenges as when I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Obviously, there are some different factors coming in—technology, Facebook, media. Especially for kids of color in the city—I think one of the key points for them to get over is being able to see themselves as different from what society expects of them… To me, that is a really important barrier to get over. YPP [lets them know] they can be themselves, but they can be somebody else, too. And I think that’s something that kids need to feel OK with, especially when they are dealing with oppression, discrimination, and just [being a teenager].
NPi: And you guys are doing training right now at MIT. What are those teachers being trained to do?
HA: Every summer we have a group of veteran Math Literacy Workers led by a college-age student. Throughout the week they learn the curriculum, and they also have enrichment workshops, whether it’s math or learning how they learn. Identifying the key points to teaching somebody, whether it’s through hands-on learning or visual representation. And they talk about different issues that are going on in community, and learning how to work with others. That’s one of the key things that we try to implement in our curriculum with the college math literacy workers—How do you learn to teach at different levels? How do you learn to facilitate workshops with a student who needs a little bit more time, and also with a student who gets the work, gets the numbers really quickly?
NPi: Chad, from an organizational perspective, you partner a lot. Is there a partnership that has been really good for you guys?
CM: A lot of the key partnerships are with the community centers, so just getting to the point where we become a part of how they function… The idea of having kids come in and work with other kids was really new to a lot of places. I think that it was invaluable for us in Cambridge and in Boston to develop relationships with these community centers and become a part of their programming. In Dorchester for instance, we’ve worked really closely with DotWell… They bring us in, and we provide a service or a program. And then they introduce us to other places, and it’s kind of a circular thing.
NPi: What can other organizations learn from YPP in that regard as far as partnering?
CM: It should be a win-win situation where you’re not only thinking about what you need as an organization, but what can you provide other organizations or people in the community. Particularly in the city [where] there are so many opportunities… Whatever you do well, you can come in and help out. And people are surprisingly open to that. I think it becomes a barrier when you think, OK, I need this or I need that, or they’re not going to want me. I think if you can do something well and even if you do something well enough, you can learn to do it better if you go out and actually try to do it. There are lots and lots of opportunities. Just go out and talk to folks and I think you’ll be surprised how open people are to working with you.
NPi: What has it meant to you to be involved with YPP?
CM: To be honest, it’s been like coming home. I went out to California to go to school, I’ve done other things, I taught high school for a while, I worked at an internet company. But I think that it’s really changed in terms of how I look at the world and the relationships that I form with other people. And this idea of movement building—I know that’s something YPP and The Algebra Project [have taught me]. Also, we really like it to be a youth-led effort; there’s always a space for people to come back. We don’t have all the resources in the world, and we can’t offer you everything, but there’s always an opening whether you’re here full-time or just helping out.
NPi: What does tomorrow look like in the movement? What’s tomorrow’s success story?
HA: I can answer that in many different ways. I think that tomorrow’s success story is that YPP is still alive and we’re still working here from a financial point of view. But also a success story for tomorrow could be a young person coming back saying, “I got this grant,” or, “I’m going to this school.” A lot of our senior Math Literacy Workers have been accepted [to colleges] and are moving on to higher education, which is something we’re really proud of.
NPi: What do you say when you meet a young person that wants change? What do you tell them?
HA: Keep fighting. It’s a struggle. Every day is a struggle. When you think about how we are the wealthiest nation in the world, there’s no reason why we should have an inadequate public education system. There’s no reason why we should not have a universal health care system. To understand that you have to take every day one day at a time because the battle is still going to be there tomorrow. It just might [take on] a different form.
CM: I would just say get your hands dirty… Find opportunities where you can take action and you can be a part of that change. And I think it’s a long road. It’s not a quick fix.
NPi: Today is July 16th, 2009. The country is in an economic recession. How is YPP doing right now?
CM: It’s interesting because right when I think we’ve hit our last stride, whether it’s been with a financial partner or other program-related challenge, people come into the work who keep it going. I think it’s the idea that you build this demand. We’re saying this is important work, we’re going to do this work, and I feel like the resources and the people and the momentum attach to that… There’s a real need for what we’re doing, there’s a real value of what we’re doing, and people and entities and systems and things recognize that… This is the perfect time to focus on investing in people and investing in our communities and in our neighborhoods rather than investing in the stock market. It’s kind of like back to basics. This is a win-win situation—investing in young people, and doing it in a positive and sustainable way. So we’re always looking for foundations and individuals to help us do the work, but the work is going to be here either way.
NPi: Is Flagway [a YPP game that teaches math] fun?
HA: Oh, absolutely. I was so into the game yesterday. We had a practice game day outside in the field by MIT. And just the competitiveness of the students, just having fun, them not even realizing that they’re doing algebra work—they were just into the numbers and thinking about the numbers in many different ways. And having them enjoy each others company… They’re learning from each other and getting comfortable with each other so that they can use one another as allies. If one bridge breaks down there’s another one to help them come back up. I think that’s why we continue to do the math literacy as social justice work. It’s not for ourselves; it’s for the generations that will come after us to help. But the game is so much fun. You get really into it.
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Aaron Devine is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, MA. His most recent work, Wonder/Wander: 522 Days in Latin America, is a literary scrapbook telling the stories of people and communities off the tourist trail in Latin America. He also contributes sports writing for Metro West Daily News and volunteers with Grub Street Literary Arts Center. Contact him at aajamde[at]yahoo.com.