Developing Language for Experience: The CCDA Student Leadership Intensive

Nikkita Oliver, program coordinator for Urban Youth Leadership Academy By Nikkita Oliver, Program Coordinator for the Urban Youth Leadership Academy


The Urban Youth Leadership Academy equips students to become thinkers. Developing the skills for critical thinking begins by establishing a new language centered on faith, identity, and leadership. Because language plays a formative role in shaping the human experience, UYLA facilitates language development in order to enable our students to fully engage during experiential learning activities and group dialogues.

Noam Chomsky pondered the relationship between linguistic ability and cognition in Language and Problems of Knowledge. He underscored the role that language plays in cognitive development, writing, “The fact is that if you have not developed language, you simply don’t have access to most of human experience, and if you don’t have access to experience, then you’re not going to be able to think properly.” This argument informs our belief that community development requires that our student-leaders cultivate a language that allows them to reflect upon their urban experience.

Developing Leaders Get “Intensive”

Speech is critical to leadership development among the youth in the Rainer Valley. Linguistics teaches us that our capacity for speech allows humans to learn, communicate, and establish relationships. Moreover, the best mentors teach us that when a student thoroughly understands a concept, they are able to effectively teach it to someone else. Teaching another person requires basic communication skills and strategies, and to communicate a specialized form of knowledge one has to master the corresponding language or lexicon.


This theoretical framework established by linguists informed UYLA’s urban encounter during the first-ever Christian Community Development Student Leadership Intensive. Our organization flew 10 student leaders (ages 16–21), to Miami, Florida. These youth spent four days — in workshops and in the city — discovering the core principles of the CCDA. This year, the leadership intensive focused on three of the eight basic principles: reconciliation, church-based, and listening to the community. As a result, our student-leaders grew in their ability to become effective community developers.


The youth had opportunities to interact with John Perkins, Noel Castellanos, Phil Jackson, Lina Thompson, Tali Hairston, and Juanita Irizarry. They heard from challenging speakers such as Shane Claiborne, Renee Rochester, and Soong-Cha Rah. These leaders modeled effective communication, as they imparted hard-earned wisdom into our scholars.

Learning Through Surveying the Community

Beyond mere lectures and dialogue, the conference leaders developed hands-on activities for students that required planning and communication, as well as personal interaction with Miami residents from a spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. The most challenging experience involved conducting a community survey. Students were responsible, as a group, for developing the questions, conducting the survey, and analyzing the results. Half of the students surveyed downtown Miami, including the business district, and the other half surveyed Overtown, a low-income neighborhood of Miami.


At first, all of the students were somewhat hesitant. The idea of talking to strangers and asking them about their community was frightening. Our students did not want to appear as tourists, nor did they want to pry in the lives of others. One student described their canvassing as feeling like the "ascending church” going down upon the city. At the outset, they found initiating conversations difficult, but with every survey completed students developed a higher level of comfort. In the end, the same student who felt like the "ascending church” began to perceive the value in asking the community what they saw, felt, wanted, and needed.


Each neighborhood that the students visited had its own unique traits, giving the students differing experiences. The students who surveyed people in downtown Miami were shocked by the lack of understanding and complacency of the people. "This is the business district,” one student rhetorically remarked. “As businessmen, and women, shouldn't they know what is going on in the city?" They found it hard to believe that the people of Miami Dade were so separate from one another, and this experience helped them see how their own city, Seattle, suffered from the same disjointedness.


The students who were assigned to survey Overtown’s residents were shaken after encountering severe poverty in such an affluent cosmopolitan city. Jerrel Davis was one of the students assigned to Overtown, and he describes the impact of witnessing an unanticipated degree of poverty. According to Davis, encountering these circumstances moved him further down the continuum toward a commitment to community development. He shares, “While reflecting on what I saw in Miami, after returning to Seattle, and considering our experience, I want to drop some tears.” When asked to elaborate, he explains: “Community, the world, the hood is what it is all about. We sometimes complain about stuff that is so insignificant. I want do more than complain.” He, like all the participants, had walked away shocked.

Transferring the Enthusiasm From Miami to Seattle

As a consequence of their cumulative experiences, our students began to develop a language around conducting surveys that allowed them to frame their own experiences. Each student demonstrated the capacity for explaining the value of conducting surveys, data interpretation, and the ability speculate about translatability to other CCDA ministries. Our student-leaders concluded their debriefing session by articulating a “best practice” recommendation for how to listen to Miami residents. Based on myriad post-conference conversations, what became apparent to our staff was their enthusiasm and a palpable conviction to continue their learning and work in Seattle among the urban scholars.


We are excited to see what they will do in this next year as they pursue a deeper understanding of their faith and the call of God on their lives. Dee Dee Pullium, a junior at Seattle Pacific University, is a case in point, who says:


For me the trip was encouraging because of all of the youth who not only wanted to make a difference, but who also wanted to make a difference in Christ’s name. It was enlightening to develop a new way of thinking about outreach.


I have always been a little hesitant because I have grown up in a middle class family. When it comes to reaching out to urban communities I feel like I am out of place, and I can’t connect with the people because I don’t know their struggle. However, I have come to realize that having conversations with people and allowing them to tell me their stories (and seeing enough value in my own story) is a step that I have been missing. From there we can start building community and making change. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken and you can’t know what’s broken until you ask.

Nikkita OliverNikkita Oliver, a native of Indianapolis, Indiana, moved to Seattle in 2004 to attend Seattle Pacific University, graduating in 2008. While a student, she worked in partnership with students, faculty, and staff as the intercultural director and Mosaic advisor to pursue a vision of reconciliation.

This is the John Perkins Center video Learn more about The John Perkins Center by watching the video This is the John Perkins Center on iTunesU.