DNA: CEC’S Genetic Solution to Build an Empathetic Community

CEC Students at Aspen Institute July, 2014

CEC Students at Aspen Institute July, 2014

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. Their annual conference brings together the country’s deepest thinkers, leaders and innovators to discuss ideas and foster creative solutions for the nation’s problems. Several year’s ago they expanded their participants to include high school students through a partnership with Los Angeles Unified Schools district which hosts an annual competition to address relevant issues like mental health, violence, and the environment. This year they expanded the competition to include Denver. We are proud to say that Career Education Center MCHS of Denver was selected as one of three winning schools to attend this summer’s Institute and present their project, DNA (Denver is Not Alone), on July 2 at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival. Students are invited to participate in the Aspen Ideas Festival (all expenses paid) and present their solutions to a distinguished gathering of global leaders, policymakers and social entrepreneurs. The teams spend three powerful days cultivating solutions in an environment overflowing with new ideas from some of the most brilliant minds of our time. This year’s Festival presenters include former President Bill Clinton and Kobe Bryant. Visit aspenideas.org to learn more about the Conference.
Launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation, and in partnership with Denver Public Schools, the citywide competition began with a two-day forum in January, where seven leaders, who are pioneering change to pressing world issues, presented the teams with seven unique challenges. Teams then had seven weeks to design a solution to a challenge topic of their choice. Equipped with tools and resources, students worked with an educator coach to strengthen their teamwork and leadership skills while collaborating with each other to design a solution to the challenge they selected. The teams engaged and gathered input from their community throughout the process.
Each team presented their inspired solution to a panel of distinguished judges, who evaluated each team based on their solution’s creativity, feasibility, sustainability, community outreach, originality and use of teamwork.
The team from CEC Middle College addressed Christopher Gandin Le’s challenge to improve mental health by creating safe spaces in their school and local community for people to share and express their feelings. The team, dubbed DNA (Denver’s Not Alone) created several community-sourced art projects, launched a community day of dialogue and a peer mentorship program.
Students at CEC were moved by Gandin Le’s work as an author and activist in the study of suicide, especially among youth. They recognized the isolation he spoke of in their own daily disconnect within traditional school communities. Their challenge became to identify the ways that people in the school community can improve their mental health by creating safe spaces in their school or neighborhood where people can share how they’re feeling. The goal was to get people talking – not just about suicide, not just about bullying – about hope and life. Walter Ochoa, senior and team leader, said, “This challenge is important because it is an opportunity to make the community happy. Everyone is too busy with their lives to take a moment to appreciate the joy of being alive. I want to show people that life is not always difficult. It might look like a storm now, but at the end there is a rainbow waiting. Putting a smile on someone’s face is all the evidence I need to know that I made an impact in their lives. It’s the little things in life that make the biggest difference.”

DNA DAY at CEC Denver MCHS

DNA DAY at CEC Denver MCHS

Once the team got to work, ideas went in many directions. Throughout the Spring they organized opportunities and venues to lift the spirits and engage the entire school in making CEC MCHS a more empathetic community.
The winning solution comprised several art projects, a community day, and a new peer mentorship program built to continue after the students graduate. The symbol they chose to carry the concept of community empathy was a DNA strand, representing connectedness: Denver’s Not Alone. The winning team worked together seamlessly because of the passion they had for their vision. Each person contributed something unique from connections with the Denver community to skills in art or construction.
Like most start up organizations, DNA members soon learned that great ideas, even when coupled with commitment and organization takes more than grit. Walter remembers the impact of economic realities like this:
“Our team wanted to work with Challenge Day Denver to put on a community building day for our school, but we quickly discovered that we could not afford this. We reached out to some former DPS students from the Montbello neighborhood to help us create something of our own that could have a similar effect on our school. Along with Greg McCoy and his team, we planned DNA Day. The day long event, was themed, “remove your mask”This wonderful experience brought our school together with a lot of laughs and fun at first. First Greg shared his compelling story, followed by every student doing the same within a small group. Things got very real for everyone at CEC. It was a chance for each student to truly be heard. Breaking through the traditional walls was the first step at CEC and now Greg and his team have begun to schedule DNA Days with other DPS middle and high schools.
Personal stories continued to fuel empathy and openness in the school environment. The CEC team created a public space that was unique and continues to expand connectedness. They initiated a 6-word memoir campaign inspired by Jordan Wirfs-Brock and FLOODLIGHT (floodlightproject.org). Step one was to send out letters to celebrities in the local community. Then they invited students and staff to share their stories in 6 words. The reaction was so well received that they visited an assisted living center and collected 6-word memoirs from elderly community members. With a sizable collection of great stories to share, and the community eager to keep sharing, they decided to go public. Working with the construction class at CEC, they made a chalkboard complete with the DNA logo, and installed it in the cafeteria. They continue changing up the 6-word memoirs every week.
Other art projects included a tile mosaic mural and a painted mural in the school building. DNA invited everyone from preschoolers to senior citizens in the neighborhood to paint a 4’’x4’’ tile. Administrators and students alike gathered to paint images, quotes, and patterns on their tiles. The finished product transformed walls into bright, lasting murals of hope and inspiration created by many different perspectives from the community. Walter remarker, “While the finished product is something to admire, the process was the most beautiful part. Groups of people who didn’t normally hang out together gathered around tables covered with paint and brushes laughing and creating memories together. “
One of the most sustainable parts of their solution is the peer mentoring program planned in partnership with the YESS Institute. Working with the school’s National Honor Society chapter, DNA has started to recruit junior and senior mentors who are willing to pass some of their success to freshman students in need of a helping hand. The YESS Institute encourages partnerships between mentors and mentees built on fun and trust before a strong focus on academics. This works perfectly with DNA’s vision because it will help freshmen transition into the challenges of high school without feeling helpless or isolated.

Social Media links:
• DNA’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cec_dna#!/CECDNA
• DNA’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/cec_dna
• CEC’s Blog: http://www.dosomethingreal.com/blog/students-helping-students
• CEC’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/#!/CECMiddleCollegeofDenver?hc_location=timeline