“Gentrification is such a big, scary word,” said Katherine Agular to a crowded gymnasium at Manual High School.
“It angers me to see my friends and neighbors pack up and leave. But they have no choice, they can no longer afford to live in our neighborhood,” she continued. “It angers me even more to know that I’m in the same boat. How soon will we pack and move away? And to where? Why can’t I enjoy the ‘new and improved’ neighborhood? Oh, that’s right. Because it’s not for me. I can’t afford that kind of luxury."
On Friday morning, Agular spoke before an audience of more than a hundred at a breakfast event at Manual High School that was held in celebration of Project VOYCE’s 2016 class of graduates.
Students like Agular, ranging in age from 13 to 22, had just completed the organization’s five-week-long summer “VOYCE Academy” program, in which they learned leadership and civic-engagement skills.
Founded in 2006 after Manual High was closed for a redesign and some students there felt that their input was not heard, Project VOYCE has been an active player in the Five Points neighborhood ever since, empowering youth and giving them the civic engagement tools to shape their schools and communities.
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As part of the graduation breakfast on Friday, two teams of VOYCE Academy graduates presented research and policy recommendations that they had compiled during the summer program. One group talked about how they will lobby Denver Public Schools to teach more about civic engagement. The other group, which included Agular, presented the audience with their study, called “Anti-Gentrify.”
This second group discovered that “gentrification” is an often-misunderstood word, even though it is such a buzzworthy one, frequently cited by both activists and politicians alike.
“43 percent of the people we surveyed did not know how to define ‘gentrification,’” said one of the students. She added that the results were compiled from 69 surveys that were returned to the students from residents of the Five Points neighborhood, as well as 91 additional surveys that were filled out online.
For those in the 43 percent category, the students provided the following definition of gentrification:
When a lower income neighborhood gets higher income residents moving in, it causes the lower income residents to move out because they can no longer afford to live there.
But what was perhaps most interesting about the youth’s presentation was when they provided their own, research-backed recommendations for how to slow the effects of gentrification.
Not only did this include tax abatements for property improvements and a "community land trust" that would invest in things like affordable housing, but the students also suggested the idea of “block captains.”
Block captains, they explained, are students like themselves who would volunteer their time to organize engagement among their neighbors on their particular city blocks. The captains would be in charge of informing their neighbors about community events and news, as well as building adult-youth partnerships.
The students suggested that schools such as Manual High could offer incentives for those who want to participate, and they already plan to approach a number of DPS administrators about establishing after-school “block captain” clubs in the coming year.
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For the audience on Friday, the presentation by the youth was a breath of fresh air around a charged topic that often feels like it lacks outside-the-box thinking.
As the VOYCE Academy graduates finished their presentation, they received a long ovation.
What comes of their proposal will depend not just on the students’ continued push for change, but also upon adult community members helping them.
To get involved or find out more information about Project VOYCE, visit its website.