People of SU

Taking Action

Written by Allison Nitch

September 21, 2020

Photo of Toyia Taylor, founder of We.APP.

Image credit: Yosef Chaim Kalinko

Alumna Toyia T. Taylor, ’11, MFAL, inspires youth to find and express their voices.

Toyia T. Taylor, ’11 MFAL, is founder and executive director of We.APP (We Act. Present. Perform.), a public speaking company that works with scholars in grades 4–12. We.APP implements a project-based learning curriculum integrating public speaking and performing arts to impact students by training teaching guides to work alongside classroom educators.

This co-teaching model inspires youth to fully engage, specifically BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) scholars, who are furthest away from educational justice. We.APP impacts youth who are categorized or have identified as LGBTQIA+, English-language learners, immigrants, unique learners, foster youth and/or McKinney-Vento students. The arrival of COVID-19 took her team, which instructs more than 260 students in six Seattle public schools, by storm.

“Nobody was ready for it,” says Taylor. “COVID-19 hit our nation in the same way we experienced September 11 (9-11). We were under attack and no one was prepared for the reality of such a destructive blow. After schools closed in mid-March, as an organization we were in shock and our first concern was the well-being of our scholars.”

We.APP immediately reached out to teachers locally and nationally who integrated online classroom resources prior to the pandemic. Within two-weeks of the school closures, We.APP researched options and was fully online after selecting Padlet, which along with Zoom and Microsoft Teams delivers all curriculum and events. “We worked around the clock with our partnering schools to ensure that every scholar we serve had access to We.APP classes virtually, by phone or delivered materials.”

“COVID-19 required us to have less fear and be fearless and take the opportunity to explore every resource, specifically technology, and how it will benefit us in and out of the classroom today because we no longer have the luxury of waiting until tomorrow to resolve the trauma that plagues us today or the progress that awaits,” says Taylor.

We.APP had to cancel its fifth annual oratory competition, Rising Voices, which “could no longer take place because getting 500 people together during COVID-19 isn’t possible … but what did still exist was our scholars who were traumatized by the effects of the pandemic,” she says. “They were feeling silenced and needed an opportunity to be heard.”

Community partner the Bureau of Fearless Ideas asked how they could help create a virtual experience. Soon, parents were offering assistance. That’s how a new event, Youth Speaks Truth (YST) emerged. Says Taylor, “We have learned that in order to survive and thrive, we must work as a collective … with a common goal.”

Then in the middle of one pandemic, another emerged—in the form of police brutality and the murder of George Floyd. This spurred more than 40 scholars to create videos sharing “thoughts around fighting twin pandemics—COVID-19 and systemic racism. Each video is unique, authentic and more importantly, brave,” says Taylor. The aim was to help youth feel empowered. Some videos were more like public service announcements, while others expressed feelings of fear, injustice, loss and sadness—along with a sense of loneliness of not being able to see or hear from friends, grandparents and other family members separated by, social distancing or the quarantine.

More than 70 people were in attendance at the Youth Speaks Truth event, which Taylor describes as deeply powerful, “Especially for our scholars of color. Being able to record and watch themselves saying ‘I am beautiful, I am brave and I am brilliant…that needs to be respected…we have been silenced far too long and will no longer be silenced anymore.’”

Taylor also serves as committee chair for the Seattle Children’s March, an event she created with youth and community members and inspired by The Birmingham Children’s Crusade March of 1963. Some 3,000 community members came together to address systemic racism.

The march united the community through “a common cause, which was for all children, specifically Black and Brown, to be able to learn and speak out against systemic racism,” says Taylor.

“The seed has been planted through the Seattle Children’s March. Now we are experiencing the cultivation of a movement that’s expanding beyond just committees and marches.”

“Experiencing the festering sickness of twin pandemics is teaching us how to truly ‘stay woke,’ or we will die,” she says. “We are learning, in order to heal, we cannot afford to be separate. In the spirit of the Kwanzaa principle kujichagulia (collective work and responsibility), now is the time to tirelessly work together in solidarity so we’re contributing on a larger scale to create change because it’s happening—the revolution is being televised and live streamed.”

Says Taylor, “It is left up to ‘we the people’ to work together using technology, liberated learning, civil protests and our vote to ensure our youth, our scholars, have the future they deserve.”