By Lizzeth Mancilla
Engagement and Policy Intern


Jolene Grimes Edwards (L), ChrisTiana ObeySumner (C), Avanti Bergquist (R)

COVID-19 has greatly impacted every aspect of our lives, from working to shopping, our health, and our social lives. However, homeless youth are particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. The coronavirus disease further burdens these students who don’t have a permanent home, a place to take online classes, a support system, reliable internet access, food, etc.

In this webinar, Dr. Avanti Bergquist of the Renton School Board, Principal Jolene Grimes Edwards of Neah Bay High School, and social justice advocate ChrisTiana ObeySumner shared stories, personal experiences, and advice on how to best support students experiencing homelessness.

This LEVinar was co-hosted with our partner Building Changes, an organization focused on supporting students experiencing homelessness. Building Changes works across and within the education, health, and housing systems to address the needs of students and families impacted by Washington state’s housing crises. Through research, programming, and advocacy, Building Changes promotes equitable responses to support students and families experiencing homelessness across the state.

When asked about their interest and commitment to this field of work, each panelist had personal messages to share. As an experienced community leader, Dr. Avanti Bergquist’s deep love for her community drives her commitment to supporting them in the best way she can. Jolene’s commitment started at an early age, as a member of the Makah Tribe. Housing on the reservation has always been challenging, but through role models and strong communities, she learned about the importance of advocating for housing. ChrisTiana’s commitment to this field of work comes from lived experience. They shared that they often think back to their experiences of “not knowing when your next meal is going to be, whether or not you’ll be warm that night if you’re going to have a solid surface to do your homework… whether you’ll be in a car, shelter, [or] transitional housing.” As someone who has dealt with these experiences, they want to find ways to support students and help them navigate these systems that continue to this day.

On measuring the success of a thriving student 

As the principal of Neah Bay High School, Jolene measures the success of her students based on four main ideas and responsibilities. (1) Making sure they have a trusted adult to guide them through the educational system and their personal lives. (2) Teaching students self-advocacy skills to recognize and understand their situations and get what they need for themselves and their families. (3) Providing kids with the tools, skillset, and resources needed to thrive. (4) Creating strong partnerships between students and schools.

Dr. Avanti Bergquist asks herself if students have the tools they need to be able to learn, food, a place to live, and other vital resources. She finds it important to make sure students aren’t facing any unnecessary barriers holding them back from success.

On how to turn our voices into power

ChrisTiana started off this discussion with a powerful statement. “There are things we can do that hold power but also realize we are in a system and culture that they seek to find our voices muted, silenced, small,” ChrisTiana said. “I think the best way to have your voice heard is finding a synergy between calls to action and lived experience.”

They emphasized that it is also important to not only find strength in numbers but also make sure voices are raised in ways that are accessible to everyone to ensure they move into power. Dr. Avanti Bergquist shared the same sentiment regarding finding strength in numbers. “When you have many voices that amplify [the message], it’s hard to ignore it when you have a huge group in your community saying this needs to change,” she said.

ChrisTiana also acknowledged that as humans we have a natural fear of risk, but when it comes to the risk of sharing our stories, they find it important to remember a quote from a philosopher saying something along the lines of “the worst things to have happened is for someone to die with their song still inside them.”

On how the experience of a student experiencing homelessness changed from the onset of COVID-19 and how those experiences differ with the intersection of race and ethnicity for students of color

Jolene recognizes that COVID-19 created a new partnership in how we look at schooling and how parents open up their homes for their kids to feel safe and comfortable. Families are facing many cultural and financial barriers with the onset of COVID. Their home space and learning environment have changed. Many families are doubled up and don’t have enough internet capacity, hotspots, and space. She asks, “How do they open up their home and current living situation without exposing everyone?”

Similarly, ChrisTiana understands and has experienced some of the concerns of a virtual learning environment. They mentioned that when students are required to turn on their cameras, potentially displaying the back seat of a car, they are allowing students and teachers to have a first-class seat into their living arrangements. Therefore, they worry the experiences students are facing right now are “going to impact new constructs, assumptions, and biases” in the way we regard each other.

Dr. Avanti Bergquist spoke about how her district is ensuring that each student has their own laptop even if they live in the same household as another student. In addition, COVID-19 has induced a lot of stress, causing her district to try and focus a bit more on social and emotional learning.

On how leaders, advocates, and allies can keep in touch and connect with students virtually as COVID leads to more evictions and strained living situations

As a principal, Jolene understands the importance of ensuring that students have the means to connect with trusted adults. She finds it important to make sure they have contact information for their teachers, mentors, and class advisors. It is crucial to “be very intentional about making sure students know these resources are there for them and make sure that they get it,” Jolene added.

Mehret Tekle-Awarun, a Senior Manager of Education Strategy at Building Changes, adds that we need to meet students where they’re at and may have to get innovative in finding ways to connect with students facing homelessness.


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