In 2011, the education world was introduced to Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education, by sam seidel. The book showed educators a new vision of high school education found in honoring urban students’ creative resourcefulness through the story of the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota. To mark the tenth anniversary, seidel collaborated with Tony Simmons, HSRA co-founder, and Michael Lipset, co-founder of HSRA Los Angeles, on Hip Hop Genius 2.0. In this new edition of the book, they describe the work of a current HSRA student, Walter Cortina.
When Walter arrived at HSRA he was already an activist—he had founded a student-led group called “Changemakers” at a previous school. Work like this doesn’t normally show up on a high school transcript, but HSRA offers a “validation system” that empowers students to work with their advisor to translate the work they’re passionate about into academic credit. During his time at HSRA, Walter has compiled “learning artifacts” including legislative testimony, grant proposals, video of meetings, and personal reflections to demonstrate his learning. Using HSRA’s validation guide, he has identified the competencies that he developed through his experiences, such as “effective communication,” “collaboration,” “entrepreneurship,” and “analysis of inequity and prejudicial systems.” Walter also secured a “community validator” letter from a mentor, Jon Bacal, who spoke to the quality, depth, and impact of the work Walter has done. As a result, Walter has received the support and guidance to do personally meaningful work and receive academic credit for it, even though it falls outside of the confines of a traditional school setting.
The following excerpt from Hip Hop Genius 2.0 tells the story of where Walter’s activism took him when the pandemic started, and St. Paul went into lockdown.
Walter brought his passion for student voice to HSRA even before the new school year began. With the support of HSRA’s leadership and coaching from his advisor Haben, Walter and Lincoln Bacal, a fellow Changemaker from Walter’s prior school, launched a “TC Changemakers” team with students from each of their schools. Walter met with interested HSRA students over the summer of 2019 and organized a two-day team-building retreat to plan activities. In January 2020, Walter decided to expand the Changemakers group he and Lincoln had formed into “Bridgemakers”—a paid, mentored experience to provide intensive coaching and support for young activists of color. The 17-year-old junior soon pitched two funders on his idea. As a result, Bridgemakers secured two $10,000 pledges. This provided Walter with a chance to turn his and Bridgemakers’ mission into a living reality: to amplify the stories and mentor the leadership of youth to reimagine and revitalize Minnesota communities through the power of passion, purpose, and relationships that break cycles of miseducation, poverty, violence, and addiction.
When the pandemic and subsequent shutdown hit, Walter lost his job at a local car wash. For the first time since his mother had been deported to Mexico three years earlier, he had no source of income; no way of helping to cover the rent for his aunt, who had opened her home to him but due to her own illness could not pay the rent; no way to pay for meals or other living expenses; and no way to help out his mother and baby brother in Mexico. He had to put his plans for Bridgemakers on hold. After a few very anxious weeks, he saw in his crisis an opportunity to put his organizing skills to work: Walter and his friend Lincoln Bacal discovered that they and other out-of-work Minnesota high school students weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits due to a state law that had been passed in 1939 banning otherwise eligible high school students from access to benefits. While other states had a similar law at one point in time, almost every state except Minnesota had since rescinded those laws.
At 11:00 am on April 11th, 2020, Walter welcomed a group of peers to their first video conference together. Walter opened the call by sharing his personal story and his plans and hopes for the future. Each participant then presented their own personal stories and struggles with the passions that had brought them to this conversation about addressing unemployment caused by COVID-19.
The team discussed a documentary about civil rights hero John Lewis, who had died two weeks earlier, and the lessons his life offered for their road ahead. Most immediately, they agreed that in the next three months their key priorities were: to engage Minnesota youth in the campaign Walter and other students had launched to convince state leaders to give out-of-work high school students access to unemployment benefits on the same basis as other workers, to encourage and support youth voter registration, and to organize forums for youth to develop and share perspectives on key policies like reimagining education.
Through their work together, the young people shared their stories of unemployment as a result of the pandemic. One young woman started them off:
Hello I’m Omariasha Houston and I go to [HSRA] and I’m in the 11th grade. I was working at Appetite for Change and they had to close down. Some people don’t have support systems and they gotta feed theirself and clothe theirself. Unemployment benefits will help our family with food. You know how we go to school and we have breakfast and we have lunch. Now we have to eat all of our food at home. And our bills, you know, it’s just added on.
After her, another young man named Kojak shared his story:
I’m 20 years old. My job was not deemed an essential job so that establishment had to close. I’m unable to apply for COVID benefits because I’m a high school student even though I’m 20 years old. But I still have to support myself.
Then it was Walter’s turn:
Hello, I’m Walter Cortina Martinez. I live on the Northside of Minneapolis, I’m also an 11th grader at the High school for Recording Arts. My mom got deported when I was 13 and ever since then I’ve been on my own. Ever since the age of 14 I’ve been working and I’ve been sending a lot of money back to my mom and my little brother that lives with her. My mom can’t work because she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. I also support myself.
The young people slowly began to recognize a shared experience in each other. The need was clear, the path was not. While each story built, from one to the next, a sense of release as well as a sense of urgency, the last two stories lit a particularly furious fire inside the group:
My name is Carlos Jimenez. I was unable to get the COVID relief fund because my parents are immigrants. I’m also a cancer patient. I suffer chronic leukemia and I have to take oral chemotherapy every day to stay well and stay alive. To take this medication I have to go to the pharmacy every single day. I have to take my car to get there because I can’t take public transportation since I’m immunocompromised. In order to take my car I have to be able to afford gas. Because I can’t work, I can’t do that and I can’t afford my medication.
Silence, and some tears. Then came Ezra’s story:
I’m Ezra Augustine. I’m unable to access COVID 19 because my parents are undocumented. I’m also a transgender person of color, I have to pay out of pocket for my hormone replacement therapy because I do not have insurance and I have no income to, you know, pay for that. I’m also an at-risk person and that makes it really hard for me to get a job.
By the end of the meeting, those present vowed to continue working on behalf of unemployed young people like themselves for whom access to COVID unemployment benefits might mean the difference between life and death. On May 8th, the Pioneer Press daily newspaper published an opinion piece by Walter asking the State to reverse its benefit denial: “We’ve lost our jobs. Many of us high school students need benefits to get through this,” it read (Cortina, 2020). Four days later, local news station KARE11-TV ran a story on Walter’s fight for benefits (Melon, 2021). These two were the first of 54 total media features on the youth-led campaign over the next eight months, seen by hundreds of thousands of readers/viewers, including stories in the Star Tribune (five separate articles), the New York Times, and Teen Vogue.
Walter and his team began to organize a student-led campaign for access to benefits. Like Walter, many of Minnesota’s 20,000+ newly out-of-work high school students depended on their work income to cover core household expenses, and yet Minnesota was denying them access to either regular state unemployment benefits or the federal pandemic unemployment help that had just been approved in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act (Davis et al., 2020). At the end of May, Walter received a call from Youthprise, a national foundation eager to promote youth engagement in the 2020 elections. Two weeks later, the Bridgemakers proposal was one of only six “Civic Spring” projects selected out of 147 applications nationwide to receive a $90,000 grant from Youthprise (Youthprise, 2021). By the end of 2020, Walter and his team had raised a total of $124,000 from four funders. Over the next two months, with the support of a coalition of allies, Walter and his colleagues converted their testimonies into short videos and social media posts on Facebook and Instagram and, with the support of HSRA advisors, organized several online “Town Meetings” to share student stories and engage more young people. The young leaders started meeting with an aide to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz; his employment commissioner Steve Grove; and key legislators and legislative aides of both parties, including two meetings with Minnesota Senate President Jeremy Miller. They drafted emails and made outreach plans in collaboration with HSRA advisors Haben and Maureen as well as Bridgemakers mentor Jon Bacal, Lincoln’s father. On May 15, 2020, after consulting with one of the nation’s top unemployment benefits experts, Walter wrote the Governor a four-page letter explaining point by point how the State’s policy was unjust. Walter copied top state officials and legislative leaders on the emailed letter. Within hours, the Governor’s aide called Walter, pledging the Governor’s support for overturning the 1939 state law (Stevens, 2021).
On June 3, 2020, Walter, Lincoln and other students testified in front of the Minnesota House Jobs Committee, the first of five times youth campaign leaders would testify at the State Capitol. Despite bipartisan support, the campaign’s efforts to pass state legislation in the June and July special legislative sessions stalled because of disagreement between the Republican-controlled State Senate and Democratic-controlled State House on how to pay for benefits. Inspired by the youth-led campaign, in August of 2020, Minnesota’s U.S. Senators Smith and Klobuchar and four U.S. Representatives introduced legislation in Congress to clarify high school student eligibility for benefits (Craig, 2020).
The youth-led campaign for student benefit-access achieved success beyond Walter’s wildest expectations. After partisan bickering had blocked action at the State Capitol, Walter and his colleagues filed a lawsuit against the State in October 2020 with the pro-bono support of a Minneapolis law firm, Youthprise, his school, High School for Recording Arts and, later, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. On December 1st, 2020, the State Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the State’s denial of pandemic unemployment benefits to eligible high school students (Turtinen, 2020).
The Court ordered the State to immediately begin paying benefits to all of the 20,000+ eligible youth. As a result, by early March 2021, young people throughout the state had received at least $30 million in benefits, with at least $40 million more yet to be processed. The Court’s decision cited many of the same points that Walter had stated in his public letter to Governor Walz seven long months earlier. Governor Walz invited Walter and four youth teammates to meet with him, Lieutenant Governor Flanagan, and Commissioner Grove in late December as they publicly pledged that permanently repealing the law denying student access to benefits would be a top priority of the Walz Administration in the 2021 Legislative Session.
By early 2021, Walter and his teammates had recruited a board of directors, a fiscal sponsor, and raised an additional $150,000 to support the team’s activism and social entrepreneurship of eight Bridgemakers youth Ambassadors into 2021 and beyond.
HSRA’s role throughout Walter and the Bridgemaker’s incredible journey has been to catch whatever balls the young people threw their way, support them in their mission, and validate the strengths/learning they demonstrated. In many ways, the school got out of the way of the learning the young people were already doing on their own, offered its support and resources, then said, “Yes, you did that. We see you. You deserve the following recognition for your work…” As a school that’s designed to adapt and respond to students’ interests, HSRA was ready, willing, and able to support the work of Walter and the other HSRA Bridgemakers through its advisory model.
Walter, the Bridgemakers, and their amazing organizing and legislative successes are in some ways unusual. But, While some of the outcomes are exceptional, this story says a lot about HSRA’s approach to learning: hustling hard to support students’ work outside the school building and unapologetically focusing on social justice. This update demonstrates what is possible when we move away from forcing students to follow school rules to instead nurturing and supporting students to change societal rules.
Cortina, W. (2020, May 8). Walter Cortina: We’ve Lost Our Jobs. Many of Us High School Students Need Unemployment Benefits to Get Through This. TwinCities.com Pioneer Press. https://www.twincities.com/2020/05/08/walter-cortina-weve-lost-our-jobs-many-of-us-high-school-students-need-unemployment-benefits-to-get-through-this/
Davis, S., Grisales, C., & Snell, K. (2020, March 25). Senate Passes $2 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Package. National Public Radiohttps://www.npr.org/2020/03/25/818881845/senate-reaches-historic-deal-on-2t-coronavirus-economic-rescue-package
Education Evolving. (2020, November 2). Our School, Our Community: Collective Action In These Revolutionary Times [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8UdO_JZjYs.
Melon, F. (2021, February 14). Young Workers Campaign for MN Unemployment Benefits. TwinCities.com Pioneer Press. https://www.twincities.com/2021/02/14/young-workers-campaign-for-mn-unemployment-benefits/
Office of Congresswoman Angie Craig. (2020, August 18). Congresswoman Angie Craig and U.S. Senator Tina Smith Introduce Legislation to Help High School Students in Minnesota Who Lost Jobs Due to COVID-19: Senator Amy Klobuchar, Reps. Dean Phillips, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum Join Effort to Make Unemployment Assistance Available to Eligible High School Students During Pandemic [Press Release]. https://craig.house.gov/media/press-releases/congresswoman-angie-craig-and-us-senator-tina-smith-introduce-legislation-help
Stevens, C. (2021, April 5). Take Five Minutes to Help High School Students Fighting for Workers’ Rights. MinnPost. https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2021/04/take-five-minutes-to-help-high-school-students-fighting-for-workers-rights/
Turtinen, M. (2020, December 2). Appeals Court Rules Minnesota High School Students Can Get Unemployed Benefits: They’ve Been Denied the Benefits, and Some Were Even Asked to Pay Them Back. Bring Me The News MN. https://bringmethenews.com/minnesota-news/appeals-court-rules-minnesota-high-school-students-can-get-unemployment-benefits
Youthprise. (2021). The Civic Spring Project. https://youthprise.org/civic-spring/.