Seven years ago I was homeless, looking for my next meal, facing all types of adversities. It is very crucial that I’m here right now.
This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton. I’m coming to you from the 2023 Deeper Learning Conference, and I’m just so stoked to be here among so many wonderful people. Deeper Learning does things a little differently, and the opening keynote consists of three stories of deeper learning told by a student, a teacher, and a superintendent. In this episode, you’ll hear from the first storyteller student, Walter Cortina.
Hello everybody. A shout-out to all of you amazing people for being here and also thank you to the Deeper Learning team for having me. I want to start off by saying that seven years ago I was homeless, looking for my next meal, facing all types of adversities. It is very crucial that I’m here right now. As I share my story, I will emphasize how education played a key role in placing me on the path I am on now, and by the end of my story, I hope that all of you will have a better appreciation for the power of deeper learning.
I am the son of two immigrant parents who fled a hard life of poverty and violence in Mexico City. They were searching for a better life for them and their families. When my parents moved to Minnesota in the late nineties, they moved to South Minneapolis where my older brother and I were born and raised. We lived near Little Earth, a south side Native American community housing project. Growing up, my family was always very big on community and encouraged us to engage and make friends with people within our community.
I want to share with you all two crucial events that have shaped my life in a profound way. When I was eight years old, my father was deported back to Mexico City. I had to watch my mother struggle as she raised her kids and as she was expecting her third child. At 13, unfortunately, after many years of my mom working so hard to maintain us over my Dad’s departure, she was finding herself in the same situation, being deported back to Mexico City.
It was then I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. My mom approached me with the question if I wanted to go with her to Mexico or if I wanted to stay in Minneapolis. After careful consideration, I opted to stay in the United States, but let me tell you all, I did not know what I was getting myself into. After my mom left, my brother and I struggled. We slowly started to lose the utilities in our house and we even struggled to find food sometimes. I would try to spend as much time on the street, being there wasn’t much for me at my house.
I would get into all types of things from skipping school all day, fighting, stealing, and just trying to get by really. One day my older brother and I arrived home from school and we saw an eviction notice on our door. My brother and I were homeless and couch hopping for a few months, and I remember during this time I only had two pairs of clothes, one pair of shoes, and just my will to survive.
After a while, I had the opportunity to live with one of my aunties. Unfortunately, at 14, my mother and auntie were both diagnosed with breast cancer. With them not being able to work to make ends meet I worked two jobs, 65 hours seven days a week.
Transitioning from middle school to high school was very challenging. I had trouble at the start of my freshman year. It turned out that going to high school full-time and working two jobs, 65 hours seven days a week, was very, very hard. Feeling very overwhelmed, I decided to transfer back to my old school, Venture, in 2018. With it being the smallest size charter school, I knew that I would get the support that I was looking for.
In eighth grade at Venture, I had my first opportunity to share my story and experience to the school board of directors advocating for a safe haven policy for immigrants. This opportunity was presented through the school director and my great mentor, John McCall. I decided to reconnect with him when I transferred back to Venture.
As we reconnected, we would dive into the conversations about what I wanted to do with my life and my passions as we had these con… Dang. As we had these conversations, it relit a spark within me to want to use my voice and experience to advocate and be a leader within my community. This led John to talking to me about co-leading a changemakers team at Venture with the goal of improving the education of the students with the students. In 2019, the Changemaker team successfully led a presentation to the school board of directors advocating for more implementations of student-centered practices. At the end of my 10th grade year, I decided I wanted to seek a further challenge within my education. I wanted to be more in charge of what and how I was learning. That’s when someone introduced to me the amazing High School for Recording Arts. Yeah, shout out to HSRA.
I really loved what I had to hear about the school, and I decided I wanted to take a tour. In the tour, they showed me the art of what it could mean to be inside of a student-centered learning environment. They showed me that within this school, students didn’t get lost in the shuffle, and that each individual had the opportunity to thrive and succeed as their basic needs were being met. All of this sounded way too good to be true, and I knew that for my 11th grade year, I had to transfer to the High School for Recording Arts.
Let me tell you all, once I got the grip of the school I took off. I started planning my own schedule and the projects that would take me to the finish line of my graduation. From the amazing support of the staff to the flexibility of my time, to the time I had to put into my passions and interest, I just loved the whole vibe of the school. I brought my goal of student leadership and voice to HSRA, expanding the Changemakers team to a Twin Cities Changemakers with students from Venture and from the High School for Recording Arts. In 2020, I decided to expand my work further and I founded Bridge Makers, a nonprofit for young BIPOC activists working to break the cycles of poverty, miseducation, and violence.
In the spring of my junior year, my plans took a wild turn. The Covid Pandemic was starting to break off and causing a complete 180 for all of us. School stopped and people were starting to be laid off work, and I was finding myself in both situations. I remember feeling the anxiety and asking myself, how am I going to pay for me and my family’s bills?
I will never forget the great advice that one of my mentors gave me during these hard times. In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity, and this turned out to be true. In May of that year, I received a call from Youth Prize an amazing local Minnesota nonprofit. They had noticed the work that Bridge Makers had been doing and were interested in the potential partnership. This call led to a group of young community leaders and I, who lost our jobs during the pandemic, to advocate and work with Youth Prize to lead a statewide campaign to change a policy that was barring high school students from receiving UI unemployment benefits. We ended up generating 65 media features, being featured on the New York Times, Teen Vogue Star Tribune. A state court victory, helping 20,000 youth gain access to 33 million in UI unemployment benefits, and a bipartisan repeal of a discriminatory State law. We saw firsthand the power of youth leadership and building bridges across a generational and political divides. I also ended up receiving a lot of school credit as the beauty of HSRA was student centered learning.
What I’ve noticed in my context about implementing deeper learning is that it opens the door to untapped potential and new possibilities to be shared with the world. At this point in my life, it was very critical. I was 17 and able to move out completely on my own. I was in a position to support me and my family that wasn’t at the cost of my mental health and wellbeing, and for the first time, I got to see the great potential of what could come from being inside of a student-centered learning environment.
Seeing the impact and the power that came from the campaign, my colleagues and I decided to take our work further and expand our work with Bridge Makers. Today, I have the great privilege of serving as our executive director and Bridge Makers envisions a world where every youth is living and thriving in their purpose, power, and prosperity. We aim to do this through the transformation of education, by mentoring, supporting, and building the capacity of young leaders as they transform the school education system, career pathways, and civic action within our communities.
I am here today because despite of going through all of that tragedy, I was determined to have a better life. I was supposed to be dead, in jail, or in the hospital as many of my friends and family are. I can officially say that last year I was the first in my family to graduate high school. Through my work with Bridge Makers, I continue to build my dream and long-term plans of sharing my voice and journey and experience with others to inspire them to work alongside me as we transform communities, to inspire us to keep building bridges across our differences.
I have said and shared a lot. I want to leave you all with a request. I cannot leave this stage without saying that all of this was possible because of the vital points that took place on my journey. Through my adversities, through the power of my education and through the career that I was able to build because of my education, because at my experience at Southwest, it led me to seek a better education for myself and seeking that led to a world I couldn’t even have imagined. From that one point of being homeless, looking for my next meal, having two pairs of clothes and on the street skipping school every day, to love in my education, being the first in my family to graduate high school, being featured on the New York Times and raising over $1.5 million for Bridge Maker’s ongoing work to support youth and their passions. I hope that you all could take this message home. What more can you do to expand deeper learning to more youth and how can we work together to create a million more stories just like mine? Thank you.
High Tech High Unboxed is hosted and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Herschel. Huge thanks to Walter Cortina, Kristin DeLa Torre and Andre Spicer for sharing their stories and to Michelle Pledger for introducing them. You can learn more about this episode’s storyteller and find their social media links in our show notes. To find out more about the Deeper Learning Conference, visit their website Deeper-Learning.org. Thanks for listening.