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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Features

Grabbing Hold of Hope

Academy helps inner-city students prepare for college and community leadership

By Sarah Jio

Nikkita Oliver (center)
Nikkita Oliver with young friends.
What does it take to become a community leader? Nikkita Oliver ‘08, program coordinator for Seattle Pacific University’s Urban Youth Leadership Academy, says it has nothing to do with wealth, privilege — or any of the other usual suspects. In truth, says the former Ames Scholar at SPU, there are potential leaders in the most unlikely places: in low-income homes with drug-addicted parents; on the streets with nothing but change in their pockets; in detention halls, where many teachers have given up hope.

Where others see hopelessness, Oliver and the Academy staff see potential. “People say that because you’re from a certain neighborhood, you won’t accomplish much,” she says. “We say, ‘Not true.’”

The Academy works with students, age 15–21, in leadership development and identity, community engagement, and college preparedness. “The ultimate goal is to help these students understand their faith and how leadership flows out of that,” explains Oliver.

She describes the year-round program — composed of weekly meetings, internship opportunities, and a culminating summer retreat — as a “discussion.” And instead of teaching, she says the Academy’s goal is to tap the teens’ “inner wisdom.” “We don’t try to put things into them as much as we try to pull out what they already know.”

Since its inception in 2004, nearly 400 students have benefited from the program, which is a project of SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. Partnering with the SPU Urban Youth Leadership Academy this year is Urban Impact, a South Seattle nonprofit organization focused on community development. The program’s executive director, Steve Bury, says the Academy’s work has made a difference — a big one.

“Seattle Pacific has shown that it’s a University committed to seeing transformation happen in the city of Seattle,” says Bury. And, he says, teens in South Seattle have gone from knowing little about SPU to considering it as a realistic option for college.

Bury, who has worked in the Rainier Valley for more than 20 years, has witnessed the success of the Academy firsthand. “I remember a student named Kevin. He told me, ‘My mind has been opened up to the fact that I can be a leader, that I have the potential to make positive change in my community.’”

Oliver says their goal this year is to provide students with more practical opportunities to effect change in their communities. “When you see kids grab hold of hope,” says Oliver, “you see their grades improve, and their motivation kick up. They grab hold of opportunities, but more importantly, they grab hold of Jesus. That’s what the Urban Youth Leadership Academy is all about.”


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