With $10,000 in grant money and a successful pilot program already underway, Tony Solís '19 aims to empower underprivileged Chicago youth to break free of the stereotypes that too often define them.
Inspired by his own experience in an elementary school book club, Solís' "More than a Figure" initiative aims to foster more opportunities for student participation and leadership in various clubs and organizations and for students to have a positive educational experience. In doing so, he hopes to deter them from joining gangs or dropping out of school, as they come to realize they are not defined by statistics, test scores and grades–that each is more than a figure.
"It's not just about keeping kids off the streets," Solís said. "It's about actively helping and supporting them to be better people so that they can enjoy a better tomorrow–one that they contribute to create."
For much of his life, Solís, a Charles Scholar at Davidson, has been aware of the statistics and stereotypes applied to Chicago's Latino population. He grew up in the city, which boasts a rich history and cultural scene, as well as one of the nation's highest crime rates and deep-seated inequities. A recent report described life in Chicago as "a tale of three cities" for its white, black and Latino residents.
More than 90 percent of black students and 89 percent of Latino students attend schools where 75 percent or more of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to the report.
For Solís, those numbers hit close to home. He attended James Shields Elementary, an underfunded school with a largely Latino population, and there he experienced first-hand the resource disparities that plague the American education system.
In fact, that book club he remembers so fondly was short-lived, as the teacher who started it had to pay for the books out of pocket and it wasn't sustainable.
Solís later attended Jones College Prep, an elite public school, through a selective enrollment program. In stark contrast to James Shields Elementary, Jones Prep students enjoyed access to countless organizations and clubs, and the school's fundraising efforts fueled the purchase of materials and supported programs for students and teachers.
That discrepancy in student experience stayed with him, and informed his studies at Davidson College in Prof. Mindy Adnot's education policy course. In it, Solís learned about the structures and policies behind much of his lived educational experience.
And it inspired him to act.
"I just have so much privilege as someone in higher education even though I come from a lower socioeconomic status," he said. "So why not do something about that to address the inequity of opportunities?"
Solis received a $1,000 grant from Davidson's Innovation and Entrepreneurship initiative to return to James Shields Elementary–an important first step of a bigger plan. While there, he met with the principal, teachers and students to gather information he needed to begin to develop his student enrichment program.
"I talked to the students because I want to make sure they directly have a voice in their own education," he said.
He needed more than $1,000 to make his vision a reality, and applied for additional grant money through Davidson's Center for Civic Engagement. The center solicits project applications from Davidson students and submits the most outstanding ones to the Davis United World Scholars Program, which funds grassroots projects that promote peace and address the causes of conflict.
Solís' "More than a Figure" proposal, to assist students in creating clubs and organizations based on their personal interests and provide summer enrichment programs, such as athletic and musical camps and academic workshops, received a 2017 Projects for Peace grant for $10,000. With that grant money, Solís was able to launch his program this past spring and held the first pilot program over the summer with students from four different Chicago schools.
Students in the pilot received seed funding for their clubs and organizations. Paired with mentors, they participated in confidence building and community building exercises.
Solís kept the James Shields students' input in mind as he developed his pilot program, which brings students, teachers and college student to collaborate through mentorship. The mentors will work with the students for a year as they learn about managing and leading their organizations.
The Summer program emphasizes leadership, civic engagement, academic achievement, and physical and mental well-being, with the intent to build a sense of community within the groups of students.
"I like that some people have made it and I want to be like them and want to help people be successful in the future," said Christian, a 14-year-old program participant. "We can do what we set our minds to."
Solís' hope is to continue work with the partner schools to offer guidance and resources for students so they may create their own clubs and organizations. He aims to foster relationships with Chicago businesses and individuals, and to host fundraisers to maintain funding for More Than a Figure.
In a survey of pilot participants, all students said that they would benefit from having clubs in their schools to explore their passions and strengthen their skills, Solís said. Eighty-six percent expressed a desire to attend college and 100 percent said that the program helped them gain self-confidence and has been meaningful to their growth.
"Our work was focused on working alongside students to ensure they know they matter and are more than test scores, grades, attendance rates and GPAs," he said. "By empowering our students and by providing the right tools and mentorship, they will be able to be at peace with themselves and will help create peace in communities to eventually shatter the inequity of opportunity."
Solís believes that working with students to develop their passions will help narrow achievement gaps and create a cycle of peace for the students and their communities. That work requires learning and listening.
"It is one thing to have a vision for change and to implement it," he said, "but it is another to understand and work alongside communities in an effective and intentional way."
Solís designed his own major–educational studies and public policy–to better inform his work.
Project for Peace applications are due by noon, Jan. 26, 2018, and should be submitted via wildcatsync (login required). See more details on the Center for Civic Engagement grants page, and contact Robert Gay, in the college's Center for Civic Engagement, with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a Davis United World College Scholars partner institution, Davidson College accepts applications/proposals for "Projects for Peace." Davidson students can apply for a $10,000 grant to support projects that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict among parties (projects undertaken during the summer of 2018). Applicants should use their creativity to design projects and employ innovative techniques for engaging project participants in ways that focus on conflict resolution, reconciliation, building understanding and breaking down barriers which cause conflict, and finding solutions for resolving conflict and maintaining peace.
Charlotte Kaufmann '18