INTERVIEWED BY SAMANTHA JOO
“The small circle of love we have managed to form in our individual lives represent a concrete realistic reminder that beloved community is not a dream, that it already exists for those of us who have done the work of educating ourselves for critical consciousness in ways that enable a letting go of white supremacist assumptions and values.”
-bell hooks, Killing Rage
In inviting Ms. Olivia Jones for this quarterly interview, I stepped outside the circle of the expected candidates. So far, I have only asked AAPI women; I wanted to really get to know the leaders of my own community. And Platform was initially designed to empower AAPI women for social justice work. But since we recently opened Platform to all womxn, I was planning on inviting a non-API woman of color for this quarterly. I looked for a good candidate or more precisely, someone who I found intriguing, someone with whom I could have a conversation. I had encountered a number of fascinating women over the summer as I interviewed candidates for our advisory board, met potential volunteer staff, and networked with nonprofit organizations. I was definitely not short of interesting people to interview but my curiosity was piqued by Olivia. Now, I would not have given a second thought to interview her except that she is a white woman.
I have to be honest and say that I initially dismissed her as a potential candidate for this interview because of her color. How can I develop an organization primarily designed for womxn of color and then interview a white woman? I debated this in my head for over a month which actually forced me to seriously look at my issue with whiteness. It was not a happy conversation; I realized the extent of my resentment for having to constantly adapt myself to the dominant culture. Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-white, just anti-whiteness, or anti-privilege which I associate with whiteness in the US. I can prove it - I have white friends :). So I have many moments where I struggle with putting white people in leadership roles or the limelight. I don’t want to perpetuate whiteness in our space. But Olivia does not embody whiteness. On the contrary, she tries to unshackle the bonds of systemic whiteness. She cofounded a school that has a diverse student population - 50% Latinx, 35% African American, and 15% white. This is the reason why I finally caved into my curiosity. And thank God for this outlet. If it wasn’t for this interview, I would never have approached her. I rarely, if ever, engage another human being without a reason.
So what was it about Ms. Jones that I felt compelled to do some serious soul-searching? She is a very young woman for what she had been able to accomplish, basically co-founding a charter high school. It is a huge undertaking for anyone, let alone for someone who just turned 30 (or thereabouts, I believe). But it was not just for what she was able to accomplish because there are many amazing women out there. It was the way in which her presence was palpable in every aspect of the school. She is not the star who is presenting Empower Community High School at gatherings; that stage is for the CEO, Principal, or Outreach Director. Rather she is always felt in the background whether it be in the students’ presentations/projects, building design, or choice of furniture. She expresses herself through people in the way she brings out their potential and inanimate objects in the way she visualizes design and space. In other words, she is everywhere and at the same time nowhere. Her imprint is invisible. This is her superpower, which in my book is much more effective than the brute strength of Supergirl. And by the way, she is uncannily strong. For a petite woman, she can lift things I can only dream of doing. Yeah, I know, she’s probably still taller than I am. No, I did not measure myself against her or ask her for her height. I am not that childish. Well, yes I am. I will get around to it when I have time.
But ultimately, it was not just because of her accomplishment that I wanted to interview her. She will definitely accomplish her dream of fully developing this school and starting a publishing company. I was also taken aback by her intensity - just take a look at the depth of her thoughtfulness in responding to my questions. I initially noticed this intensity in her fierce gaze which I am convinced can penetrate a person’s soul. I personally wouldn’t know cause I basically sold most of my soul. Not because I am Faust but because I’ve learned at an early age that God wanted to break me so that he could mold me into a conservative, straight, white male. I know … I had to sell it. This intensity is embodied in her commitment to the students at ECHS. It is manifested in her determination to get things done, no matter what. She will hold the world to it. After all, she put the moon in the sky with her sheer will power :). How many people do you know who can put the moon in the sky? Well, according to her, everyone. That is her magic. Not that she is fiercely determined but how her passion is directed, to uplift her beloved community. She absolutely believes in everyone’s potential and therefore will the students to thrive, not just survive.
And another reason that I wanted, or needed to talk with her is interestingly, the contradictions in her person. Now, if anyone knows me, I really don’t comment on a person’s appearance, beauty yes, but not his/her attire. It’s not that I don’t notice; I have eyes. It’s just that I give it a nano-second of thought; I have too many things on my mind. But the reason why I noticed her clothes or more precisely, the colors of her dresses (I can’t believe I am writing this - my nieces will have a heart attack) is because it contradicts her personality. She does not like the limelight; she is more of a director, the one who works behind the scene. But I needed to know what would prompt such an introverted person to wear such bright dresses that would draw attention to herself. Well, I learned the answer from a short but precious conversation I had with her. I would share this awareness but I like to keep some of the mystery for myself. I like to walk away from each conversation with something just for me. It is the privilege of being the interviewer.
So here is the interview. I am grateful that Olivia took the time to share her story with me. The interview is longer than usual but I consciously decided to include most of her responses. It was just too beautiful to abridge. As you read the interview, you will know why and agree with me.
Sam: What pivotal events in your life do you think led to the founding of Empower?
Olivia: No other event has shaken me to my core as deeply as the passing of a student, Mardale Jay, just a few weeks after his high school graduation. I met Mardale during my first year teaching; he was a freshman in my Introduction to Literature class. The high teacher turnover at Manual meant that each year, as only one of two returning teachers in the English department, I had the opportunity to choose which class I would teach. This allowed me to loop up with the same group of students for three consecutive years. Mardale and I continued to learn together in American Literature his sophomore year, then AP English Language and Composition his junior year, and during his senior year we worked together to build the Writing Center.
We were lucky enough to keep this community together for the next two years still chasing after this vision. A vision that came from our three years together in English class-- where everything we wrote had a purpose. Like stopping the district from turning Manual into East’s 9th grade academy in an email campaign, writing and recording original poetry at a local radio station to share truths of injustices in America, fundraising over seven-thousand dollars to buy personal laptops and effectively close the digital divide for the 25 of us in our AP English Language course.
When these students reached their senior year, we were determined to find a way to keep building together. As students of color who had attended Title One schools in an urban district, they had experienced firsthand how their innate passion for writing and learning dies if school is a place where they are repeatedly told their skills are “unsatisfactory.” The majority of their peers had learned to see writing as something that only exists in the world of academia, a place where they have historically been marginalized and silenced. So, we set out to build a place where students could feel safe enough to take the risks required to discover that writing is power.
In this founding year, I witnessed these students actualize their vision. In a two minute pitch to the Imaginarium during Denver start-up week, Carlos won $10,000 of funding. In November, twelve of us boarded a plane (several students for the first time) to Seattle and attended the National Conference for Peer Tutoring in Writing. They re-designed their space. Pushed into classes and became writing teachers themselves, designed and facilitated custom workshops, hosted events where students could speak their truths, published weekly blog posts to deconstruct injustices they experienced, and edited and self-published a 150 page collection of short stories with a class of sophomores. That first year was one of the most inspiring and exhilarating times in my entire life. It gave me the opportunity to develop deep, authentic relationships with students.
Even after all this success, we were still pushed out of Manual in September 2017. They ended my contract and emailed me to say I was no longer welcome on campus on the same night as the first Community Design Team meeting for Empower. It seemed serendipitous to have an opportunity to continue to build with students and families and to continue to fight for an educational space in which students could truly walk in power and be authors of their own learning.
Cornel West once said, “We are who we are because somebody loved us.” For each one of us in the writing center family, that person was founder Mardale Howard Jay. Mardale was a beacon of hope. A lighthouse guiding ships to the safety of the shore, he was strong enough to withstand any storm. He was that light in the distance that gave us strength, direction, and hope. There was never fog thick enough to cover his light. His light keeps all of us from losing ourselves or falling adrift.
Mardale’s love continues to be the driving force for me and the work that I do at Empower. Today, I am still consumed by gratitude for Mardale, for his love, for helping me discover who I am. It is amidst his love that I continue to fight to change.
Sam: What social issues are you most invested in?
Olivia: I am most invested in dismantling oppressive systems upholding savage capitalism and the destruction it breeds. All of the people who, as Cornel West puts it, are “catching hell every day.” Poverty is violent. Racism is violent. Children are dying. Here, in Aurora. Losing Mardale shook me to my core. I have always been invested in education, but Mardale’s story was a reminder that education is not enough. It did not matter that Mardale worked very hard, graduated top of his class, and secured a full-ride scholarship to college before entering 9th grade. He was born into generational poverty. He spent his life “catching hell.” In his final months, when he was unable to walk because he was in so much pain, he still slept on the floor of a small apartment he shared with ten family members. From the balcony of his apartment, you can see CU Anschutz campus and Children’s Hospital. It is not even a block away. Just across Peoria. Yet, his autoimmune disease was undiagnosed and untreated. Given the history of Black Americans and medical research in this country, it is not a mystery why he and his family did not get medical treatment and help. This is why I am invested education grounded in transformative resistance so all students graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to resist and transform these oppressive systems.
Sam: Who was the most important mentor in your life and why?
Olivia: The matriarchs of my family have always inspired me. For me, they are symbols of strength, resilience and pure love. I come from a line of strong, stubborn, powerful women—each of whom overcame obstacles without breaking her stride. My great-grandmother was the youngest of 12 children. Her parents were Italian immigrants who, by the time she was born, managed to have bought a house in a white neighborhood of New Jersey. The neighbors came to their door the day after they moved in offering a cash offer of double the house's selling price if they would stop unpacking and leave. Their brown skin, accents, and twelve children were simply not welcome. My great grandmother wanted to go to college, but our family’s old world ideas hadn't expanded enough for that and she instead became the mother of my grandmother who was homecoming queen, valedictorian, and six months pregnant at her high school graduation. Eyebrows were raised, but she forged ahead and three weeks after starting college, my mother was born. As a single mother, she graduated with honors in four years and soon after became an English teacher.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she read Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Bean Trees. She has always told me it was in the first chapter of this book where she discovered the best parenting advice she had ever come across. As the novel’s narrator is moving away from home for the first time, she tells you about her mother. She says: “There were two things about Mama. One is she always expected the best out of me. And the other is that then no matter what I did, whatever I came home with, she acted like it was the moon I had just hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars. Like I was that good.” Following this advice, everyday my mother would tell me: “thank you putting the moon in the sky” like I was that good.
Soon after she finished the book, I was born. As she was rolled into the delivery room, my mother asked the doctor, “Why do you have a trashcan full of blankets in here?” She always prided herself on the fact that she could make polite conversation throughout labor. “Oh we have that in case we don’t manage to catch the baby, the baby will shoot into the trash can and land on the blankets.” And that is exactly where I landed. I was born with conviction. I think this came from the faith and determination of these women who came before me.
18 months later, my mom dropped me into an oncoming ocean wave. I was a wiggly handful and the wave was big—making the water was too deep for her to hold me. This story was told regularly in my household growing up. She says I calmly looked up through the swirling water just as I was being sucked beyond her grasp. I wriggled around in the cool salt water without a look of distress. She managed to pluck me from the ocean’s grasp just in time. I think, even then, I just knew she would.
I believed in the sheer power and determination of these women for I have seen it make the impossible a little bit more probable. Sometimes, it even seemed like there was even a little magic in our determination. In preschool, I would curse like a sailor at red lights, because my mom explained that the way to get a red light to turn green is it tell it every cuss word you know. Sometimes I had to use more words than other times, but no matter what my words always had the power to switch the signal of those big stop lights in our favor and to make my Mom laugh. Silly, I know, but this was a part of the whole belief system-- to make real change, you have to give it all of your attention and focus. If you work hard enough, something will happen and from that, you can make something new.
I carried this conviction and determination into the classroom with me. I carried her spirit with me into the classroom-- treating my students each day they walk into the classroom as if they have hung the moon in the sky, as if they are that good. Because empowerment begins with someone recognizing that you are capable of incredible things.
Sam: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
Olivia: I’ve always loved to read, I think because it is like listening. It is intimate. It is an opportunity to see the world through a different lens, to broaden your worldview. Listening has always been one of my strengths. Working with writers of all ages, as a reader and an editor, has been the most energizing and inspiring experience in my life. Ten years from now, my publishing company will have published its third collection from a diverse group of intergenerational writers and artists. I will be living in community, somewhere remote, with a partner I love.
Sam: What does it mean to be white for you?
Olivia: For me, being white means I must take ownership of the violent history and legacy of white supremacy and racism. It means that even when I personally practice anti-racism, I still am racist because racism is systemic. I must take accountability for my role in sustaining any racist thinking and action and must interrogate the ways that white privilege shows up in my life. Being white also means that I must actively and consistently seek out knowledge of history, otherwise I will remain unaware of all the ways in which the history of racism in this country has institutionalized structures of racial apartheid. It means I have to read, to study, to listen, and to change.
Olivia Jones graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a B.A. in Ethnic Studies and Speech Language Hearing Sciences. She went on to teach English Language Arts at Manual High School. During her fifth year at Manual, Olivia worked alongside 15 seniors to co-create The Mardale Jay Writing Center (MJWC), the first student-led high school writing center in the nation. One year after its founding, The MJWC expanded into the larger community to serve all students in the Denver-Metro area. Within one year, the MJWC had connected with over seven hundred students from more than forty schools across Denver and Aurora. In October 2017, Olivia co-founded Empower Community High School. An innovative public school offering authentic education that is led by students, co-created with community, and guided by educators. Olivia feels the most joy when living and learning in a community grounded in love.