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caption: Zana Stewart and Fernell Miller at ASHHO cultural community center. 
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Zana Stewart and Fernell Miller at ASHHO cultural community center.
Credit: Nwaynna Stewart

'The future just shifted.' How an educator made space for youth of color during the pandemic

Elementary PE teacher Fernell Miller noticed the lack of mental health support for students of color during the pandemic and decided to do something about it.

The Root of Our Youth, an organization Mrs. Miller started 30 years ago, offers young people a space of healing, joy, and connection.

RadioActive's Zana Stewart joined that space during the pandemic, and talked to Mrs. Miller about it.

[RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's radio journalism and audio storytelling program for young people. This episode was entirely youth-produced, from the writing to the audio editing.]

Fernell Miller has been running an after school organization for Black and Brown youth for 30 years.

For young students of color living in predominantly white spaces, Miller’s program offers them the chance to spend time with peers who look like them and understand their experiences.

They can get homework help, learn about ethnic history, or just hang out with each other. The program works with young people from kindergarten up through high school.

"I can’t tell you how much my babies in kindergarten love to see the high school kids and to see the potential, see themselves reflected in the world," Miller says. "It changes everything and means everything."

caption: Fernell Miller teaching Black history to elementary students. Her after school program serves youth from kindergarten up through high school.
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Fernell Miller teaching Black history to elementary students. Her after school program serves youth from kindergarten up through high school.
Credit: Courtesy of Fernell Miller
I just kept opening my Zoom line everyday, and kids would just show up and show up. Because they had a safe place to just be. FERNELL MILLER

The pandemic forced many programs to be put on hiatus. But not this one.

Miller began to hold group meetings on Zoom and opened it up to all youth — not just those at her school.

This is when I got to join. After one visit I was hooked, and I just kept coming back. Before I knew it, I was going to the meetings four days a week, sometimes more.

"I just kept opening my Zoom line, everyday," Miller remembers. "And kids would just show up and show up. Because they had a safe place to just be."

Miller is from South Dakota. Her parents were educators on a Native American reservation. In the 1960s, that was one of the few places Black educators could get a job in the U.S.

Once Miller became a teacher, she wanted to create a space for Black youth that she never had when she was younger.

After all this time, she’s created just that.

caption: Fernell Miller with students from the Root of Our Youth.
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Fernell Miller with students from the Root of Our Youth.
Credit: Courtesy of Fernell Miller

As her program has grown, Miller’s seen a lot of progression towards the future she wants to see. But this past year, seeing her students advocate and push for change — that was something special.

"To see 30 years of my work and seeing these students here in real time change the future," Miller says, "that was real easy to picture and hold in my mind...a concrete moment for me of, 'Wow. The future just shifted right there.' And it was beautiful."

During the summer of 2020, I struggled.

It was brutal to be cut off from most of my social interactions. On top of that, every social media platform was filled with clips of people being murdered — people who looked like me and who were my age. The videos of them taking their last breaths and calling for their mothers was put on repeat, in the name of social awareness and being woke.

That’s why I’m so grateful The Root of Our Youth found me.

Our conversations aren’t always focused on trauma and pain. We have dance parties and impromptu poetry slams. We share music and talk about our favorite shows. And most importantly, we celebrate and learn about each other’s cultures.

This community has given me and many other students a home. And all of this is because of Miller.

"There’s a place where kids need to feel supported, seen, valued, visible," she says. "All of the things that they’re searching for, they have everything they need inside themselves. And this is a place where we can really learn to look inside and find ourselves first. And that’s where we’ll find each other."

This story was created in KUOW's RadioActive Online Intro to Radio Journalism Workshop for 15 to 18-year-olds, with production support from Ardo Hersi and Iz Ortiz. Prepared for the web by Iz Ortiz. Edited by Lila Lakehart.

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