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By: Ellie Bullard

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How this former Promise Fellow and new ServeMinnesota employee is bringing theory to practice

Back when he was a student at Occidental College, Isa Kibira remembers living in “theory land.” He majored in political science and liked thinking big-picture about social change, studying with professors specializing in critical theory, Black studies, and education.

Weaving what he had studied into his professional life was more difficult than he thought. “You can study education all you want,” he said, “but really implementing it was harder than I anticipated. That was a big shock.”

One of the first chances Isa got to implement what he learned was as a Promise Fellow with Minnesota Alliance with Youth. He learned about the position after connecting with Minneapolis Public Schools’ Office of Black Student Achievement (OBSA), and had them as a service site when he was a Promise Fellow. He intentionally sought out an opportunity with them because he loved the office’s very person-centered philosophy – to help Black students achieve success as they defined it, and on their own terms.

In that year he served as a Promise Fellow, he supported an OBSA class for Black students at North Community High School. Serving with OBSA and that class proved to be hugely influential for him. “This was one of my first opportunities to really center blackness professionally,” he said.

A big part of the class was to help the students feel comfortable, confident, and safe. They started out with a series of get-to-know-you games, a round of life story introductions modeled by the instructors, and classroom guidelines co-created with the students. Then they moved into a study of Black history, including figures such as Macolm X and Marcus Garvey.

The next year, Isa created a curriculum of his own when OBSA hired him on as a Programming Assistant. He incorporated what he had learned in college and at North Community High School to create his own classroom exercises. One exercise was Matrix-themed and had students chart versions of their life’s path over time, earning him the title “mad scientist” from students. “The kids would be like, you’re ridiculous. It was hilarious.”

The classes and work Isa did at OBSA was fundamentally community-centric. It focused on relationships with students as well as parents. “Students used to be shocked if I called their parents, especially with positive phone calls home,” Isa said. “I don’t think we stress that enough in education.”
 
The classrooms Isa supported qualify as “affinity” groups, or intentional spaces created for people of a specific identity. Isa’s experience will be particularly helpful in his new role as Community Engagement Evaluator with ServeMinnesota. He’ll be working to create affinity groups for BIPOC AmeriCorps members, as well as working on recruitment and retention of BIPOC AmeriCorps members and program evaluation processes.
 
Beyond Promise Fellows and OBSA, Isa has several other professional experiences that will help inform his work with ServeMinnesota. He worked in Minneapolis’ Department of Civil Rights and had an Equity Evaluation Fellowship with Minneapolis Public Schools, both through the Urban Scholars program. He also had two fellowships in 2021, one with New Leaders Council and another with Connext MSP.
 
Through the past four years, Isa says he’s really learned that “you’ve got to be connected to people to do any type of meaningful work.” In taking this new position, he’s excited about returning back to a bigger picture, while taking that lesson about community connection in stride. “This is my attempt to get back to the work I had been doing before Promise Fellows,” he said.
 
Now that he’s further into his professional life, he sees Promise Fellows and OBSA as a priceless professional experience directly after college. “I really got to get back into the community after being away for four years,” he said. “It was a bunch of things going right, for sure.”

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