Honoring Women’s History Month: A Q&A with SchoolTalk’s Leila Peterson

We’re asking education leaders to reflect on their many contributions to the sector. From the “why” behind their work and what calls them to serve school communities, to where they draw everyday inspiration from and more, we’re featuring leaders’ perspectives on Ahead of the Heard in the coming weeks in a series honoring Women’s History Month. 

Leila Peterson is the executive director of SchoolTalk, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that builds school communities where every youth is honored and self-determined. Founded in 2008, SchoolTalk tackles complex problems that impact marginalized youth and the schools and systems that support them. Peterson’s career is rooted in conflict analysis and resolution, and in serving youth with disabilities within inclusive spaces that foster self determination and community. I reconnected with her over Zoom to discuss how SchoolTalk is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, what draws her to the work, and more.*

Christine Wade:
Tell our readers a little about SchoolTalk and the organization’s evolution since its founding. 

Leila Peterson:
We came together in 2008 in response to the fact that Washington, D.C. had more special education due process hearings for young people than all 50 states combined at that time. It was unacceptable. We formed to figure out why this was happening, and quickly learned that the systems and structure of organizations, local government, and the community at large weren’t set up with adequate resources and processes to help schools, family, and youth before issues went to court. SchoolTalk was established to address this issue head-on and to help everyone come together in more proactive and productive ways. 

Our original focus was on supporting the district in developing a continuum of effective processes for preventing and resolving special education disputes. This included services such as Individualized Education Program (IEP) facilitation as well as creating spaces for collaborative problem-solving at the systems level. Over time, we also realized that part of the problem was that youth themselves weren’t given a seat at the table. Giving voice and fostering self advocacy directly with the young people we serve steered SchoolTalk in new and interesting directions. Now nearly 15 years later, our mission is evolving to tackle complex problems that impact marginalized youth through restorative justice and inclusive education. 

CW:
Students, particularly those with disabilities, have been through a lot since the start of the pandemic. How has SchoolTalk shown up for students over the past few years? What went well, what was hard, and how did you approach the work? 

LP:
Our team’s focus is on getting students back to a new “normal” in a way that recognizes the intense needs and all that they’ve lost since March 2020. In a school system like Washington, D.C.’s, many complex needs of the young people we serve have only worsened due to the pandemic.

Our dual programmatic focus on restorative justice and inclusive education are the core pillars of this work. A lot of people think restorative justice is just about dealing with student behavior as an alternative to suspensions, but we think the standard approach should be upended. In SchoolTalk’s work, 80% of the focus is on preventative and proactive supports, because young people need to have connection and community, otherwise what are you “restoring” them back into? 

Our team continues to defy expectations amid the challenges of the pandemic. In the 2020-21 school year, we operated in nearly 80 schools and collaborated with more than 55 organizations to support over 315 transition-aged students (ages 14-21) with disabilities through inclusive and restorative programming during virtual schooling. This year, we’re focusing on how to rebuild a sense of community and reignite relationships with a return to in-person schooling through our virtual and in-person programs. 

And we infuse arts programming into our restorative and inclusive education approaches. Last year, our Voices of Change conference went virtual, too, and we leaned in and created a dynamic arts-based competition among students and local hip hop artists and video producers showcasing students’ diverse perspectives. Students were simultaneously building video production, editing, and storytelling skills while honing their self advocacy and elevating their voices. We’ve adapted and I commend our team for its nimble focus on new ways to meet young people where they’re at to support their agency and growth.

CW:
How does your mission and programmatic focus show up in practice? How do you know when you’ve been successful?

LP:
We take a nested approach to this work and center youth and their needs in the district through our direct programming with young people. We focus on youth leadership, self advocacy, and the arts in an inclusive environment. But if you just focus on helping youth that are put back in school and community systems that don’t include spaces for them to use their voices and where power dynamics impact their decision-making, it’s not as effective. 

That’s why SchoolTalk also focuses on school environments and training adults that connect with youth — from K-12 school settings to those in local agencies including the Department of Human Services and the Department on Disability Services. Our team addresses processes and an array of underlying problems (e.g., systemic ableism and systemic racism) because how you bring people together is just as important as the problems we’re all trying to address.

CW:
What must schools and communities start doing now to better support students?

LP:
Everyone feels pressure to make up for lost academics since the start of the pandemic. However, we find that a lot of students are still disconnected from schools and enrollment is down across Washington, D.C. It’s easy to focus on how to bring test scores up through tactical approaches like tutoring. But that misses a bigger picture. At SchoolTalk, our restorative justice and inclusive education programmatic focus areas factor in how much students in the district lost by not being able to connect with friends, plug into a school community in formal and informal ways, and so much more. 

We’re encouraging schools to invest in proactive relationship-building with young people and also with each other as adults in the education system. If you look at absent teachers and school staff leaving the profession, and factor in what they’ve been dealing with for the past two years, it’s imperative that in the school years ahead we take stock and support young people and adults within supportive and inclusive school systems.

I bet that the school teams that take the time to focus on these elements — and not just on test scores — will be head and shoulders above the rest on future academic growth. If you don’t first focus on getting students in classrooms, feeling like they can learn in a supportive school environment, academic outcomes will continue to lag. We can’t skip over this stuff.

CW:
As you think about Women’s History Month, is there a particular woman who has inspired you? And what advice would you give to other female leaders in the field?

LP:
I want to give a shout out to my network of women leaders. They’re the ones who both inspire me and who I turn to with questions, issues, and challenges on a daily and weekly basis. I cannot imagine my personal or professional life without them; so many have grown into lifelong friends!

In terms of advice, I think it’s important to build a network of trusted friends and colleagues, and to lean on it. It’s important to have people you can turn to and trust for honest feedback. I also recommend soliciting different perspectives. It feels like society is redefining what leadership is and how it should be, and it’s a powerful discussion given how polarized things are right now. Different generations of women leaders’ perspectives might vary. Facilitating dialogue with multigenerational leaders is important to expand your understanding of how leadership functions, how it’s evolved, and how best to support teams through change.

CW:
What personally calls you to this work? What gets you out of bed every morning?

LP:
My upbringing as a Quaker is at the core of who I am and how I approach my work. I was raised to believe that every person is a complete person. The concept of wholeness and of wanting to build a world and education system where everyone is recognized as a whole, beautiful person drives everything I do. I feel so privileged to work in the disability space and to broaden SchoolTalk’s vision and reach in Washington, D.C. Humans are complex and different, so doing this meaningful work and helping adults and young people be themselves and feel validated gets me up every morning.

CW:
In closing, as you look across SchoolTalk’s journey from 2008 to now, what are you most proud of?

LP:
Our team is full of creative, wicked smart people who care and who are willing to take risks and do things differently to have an impact for the students we serve. I can’t think of a better group of people to work alongside every day (or through a pandemic!).

Stay tuned for more in Ahead of the Heard’s Women’s History Month series in the coming weeks. 

*(Editor’s note: SchoolTalk, Inc. is a former Bellwether client.)