The Spotlight Series is a monthly series profiling poets, educators, and organizers doing transformative work in the fields of arts and education. This month, the spotlight shines on Altagracia Montilla who speaks with us about her role as Community School Director, love for art, and vision for radical education!
What makes you spark?
On the surface, I’m an educator. Beyond that, I’m an artist because above all, I’m an activist.
For me, art is creation; bringing what is imagined to real life. Art requires the ability to imagine something that does not exist and bringing it to life through action. Art makes intangible expressions tangible.
I see activism as a form of art; it requires action that will bring an imagined world to life – for me that imagined world is a more equitable and just world. Education happens to be my medium, specifically, radical education or education motivated by love for students and communities, especially black and brown communities.
We believe this type of work is a calling, a summoning of sorts… When did you first realize you were called to youth work? What brought you to this work and why are you choosing to stay?
Unfortunately, like most systems, the traditional education system wasn’t designed for POC, if anything; it was designed to keep us out. In that case, I see no reason to conform to the traditional expectations of education (ain’t for us, ain’t by us). In my role, as an educator, everything I do is with the intention of dismantling the structures that are inherently racist (sexist, homophobic, etc.) and dehumanizes our youth. I think that starts with teaching self-love before anything else. When we’re living in a world that constantly challenges our worth, self-love is a powerful act of resistance.
How do you envision the arts playing a role in the expansion of educational opportunities/access for scholars and what role do you see yourself playing in shaping this new future?
It’s one thing to teach our youth algebra and geometry, for instance, but it’s equally important to build their confidence. Our society tells us we are worthless, invisible, and don’t deserve to attain knowledge – don’t deserve to master these math concepts, which is why it is important that we make room for unapologetic self-love, because our youth will master curricula when they believe they can and that they deserve to. My goal is to impact youth and impact adults working in education, so that they too commit to empowering our youth implicitly (i.e. recognizing their own biases) and explicitly (i.e. anti-racist curricula).
I value Spark House because it’s a form of radical education. Embedded in Spark House’s practices is empowerment. The organization’s curriculum is built for youth to think critically of themselves, in a way that challenges their own self-perception imposed by society. The organization also models effective education practices, such as: collaboration, differentiation, individualization, scaffolding, project based learning, creativity, and student centered learning.
This is Spark House’s first year in partnership with FDA III. Can you share one highlight or most memorable moment from this year’s Residency Program?
There were many highlights to the Spark House partnership with Frederick Douglass Academy III, but I’ll share just two:
One, when a student heard News 12 profiled the partnership he turned to me and said “News 12 is coming? We only been on the news for fighting”. That moment is representative of the shift in scholars’ self-perception during the Spark House residency.
Two, during the culminating event, I overheard a scholar talking to his mother on the phone. This student was not performing but as stage manager, was asked to greet audience members. He explained that he could not pick up his sister because he “is an important person in the show and want[ed] to make audience members feel special when they enter the theatre.” It was such a gift to hear this student speak so highly of himself. Spark House did a wonderful job acknowledging the contributions of all students.
What is most challenging about your role as Community School Director? Most enjoyable?
As a Community School Director, I build, manage, and support school improvement strategies. My goal is to transform FDA III into a hub of resources for the community and to empower them as a result. The most exciting part about my work is the relationships I build. Though most of my work is top-down, I have the privilege of connecting with students. The most challenging part about my work is that I always feel as though I should be doing more; but that’s a personal problem and I feel most at ease when I’m working to support the school and community.
I’ve always wanted to work with youth. Overtime my successes solidified that desire more and more. As a woman of color raised in a single parent home and in poverty, there were a lot of moments where I questioned if “I’m supposed to be here”. I always felt and continue to feel that the “pull yourself by your own bootstraps” mentality is bull shit and have felt this way since I was a kid. I always questioned the formula to achieving “success” when faced with challenges. Our students will achieve success when they understand: (1) that our challenges are a result of institutionalized dehumanization in society and (2) unapologetically that we are loveable, capable, valuable, and worthy. This formula is reflected in the work I do with youth.
If you could give adolescent Altagracia a single piece of advice, what would you share with her?
Be yourself unapologetically and Love yourself unapologetically.
Altagracia Montilla is an activist, artist, freethinking, queer feminist who uses radical education practices to empower youth with an arsenal of self love. For more information, contact Altagracia at firstname.lastname@example.org.