Q&A with Joseph Jamison, United Way equity and network specialist

SCHOOL OF THOUGHT: Joseph Jamison says that centering student voices during discussions about their education is critical to boost academic and personal success. Photo courtesy of Jamison

Just as the 1918 influenza pandemic was coming to an end, the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County was founded as a way to raise funds for local charities and coordinate relief services. Roughly a century later, the nonprofit was thrust into helping manage the effects of another pandemic — COVID-19 — while continuing its mission to improve the lives of area residents.

Joseph Jamison is part of that work. As the equity and network development specialist for the United Way’s Community Schools program, his job is to help lift student voices during this challenging time and make sure that adults are listening.

“One of the biggest challenges students face is a lack of voice in a lot of decision-making within our schools and the community at large,” he explains.  “For example, debates over masks or virtual versus in-person learning. We’ve all heard a lot of loud adult voices at the table, but I think most people would be hard-pressed to recall a news clip or an article where they heard what students thought about those decisions.”

Xpress sat down with Jamison to learn more about the needs of Ashevile’s students and how community support can create a path toward success.

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

What is the Community Schools program?

Community Schools is really a strategy about ensuring there are appropriate resources in the schools so that they can serve as hubs of support for the community.

Our current roster of community schools includes Erwin Middle, Enka Middle, Owen Middle, A.C. Reynolds Middle and Asheville Middle. Joining those ranks this year are North Buncombe Middle and Asheville High/SILSA.

As these school communities across our county are unique, each community school looks a little bit different. But an effective community school has four pillars that it stands on: integrated student support, like mental health services; active and authentic community engagement; expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities, like summer or after school programming; and collaborative leadership practices.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Co-creating opportunities for youth leadership and strengthening the network of schools and community partners are really my main focus areas. That might look like me connecting one-on-one with staff from some of our community partners or presenting to their boards to discuss the new network partnership agreement that we have. We’ve defined a bold community goal — by 2035, all Asheville City and Buncombe County students will graduate ready and fully prepared to pursue their goals and dreams.

That goal and the agreement were run through a series of focus groups, surveys and outreach with over 150 youth and community partners over the last year. That’s also a big part of my work: ensuring that there is equity of voice and leadership in everything we do as we evolve as an organization, network and community.

What challenges do students experience locally that you help to address?

Long before this pandemic, it’s been well known that there are children in our community who are experiencing homelessness or living in homes with little to no access to resources like food, water and internet.

We also have many Latinx youth and other students from immigrant communities facing language barriers. The pandemic has turned up the heat on a lot of those well-known issues, but it’s also brought some students into those situations for the first time.

How do you think kids feel when they are given a seat at the table?

Youth are speaking all the time, whether they’re at the table or on social media or in the classroom or lunchroom. Youth are proximate to the issues, and they are reflecting on them and talking about them with one another and with adults.

The question is really, how does it feel when adults actually listen to what youth are saying? Part of my work right now is building that capacity in our community. We have a lot of organizations and a lot of initiatives that are rightfully looking to more authentically include youth in their design and decision-making capacities.

As with any group whose voice is so often marginalized, the people who are building the table or holding the space for those voices to enter the room and have an impact have to be prepared to do that in a way that is truly inclusive and equitable. They need to make sure that students are not just present and not just heard, but really have an influence on whatever the room is talking about.

What’s your favorite part of your job, and what are some challenges that you experience? 

I’m the kind of person whose favorite thing is the challenge — that’s what motivates me and drives me. With United Way, what’s really challenging right now is that we’re in our centennial year, which is exciting because we’re in the process of envisioning our work in the community over the next 100 years.

But doing that requires us to reflect on the last century and acknowledge where we’ve made our own mistakes and potentially caused harm. I feel really fortunate to be here at this organization when our team and our leadership is willing to commit to centering equity as we move forward and dive deep into that level of introspection.

What do you think students and teachers need in terms of support?

There are so many needs. So rather than speak to one specifically, I feel really comfortable saying that all our schools are in need of all our support right now. That’s why community is in the name of Community Schools, but that approach isn’t necessarily limited to the schools we currently work in.

And so to anyone out there, I would encourage them to connect with the schools in the districts that they live in about what needs they have. Opportunity gaps manifest as achievement gaps in the schools, but they’re born in our communities. It’s going to take all of us, the whole community working together, to close them.


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