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Creating a K-20 Cadre of Global Leaders for Racial Equity

Project Description

Students address racial injustices by engaging in a Critical Civic Inquiry learning and leading experience that fosters collaboration across the City of Denver and beyond.

Executive Summary

This project seeks to address several related issues: the call for leaders who can work toward racial healing and equity; the role young people can and should play to meet this demand;  the lack of systems that provide experience, exposure, preparation, and access for youth to engage in this work; and the ongoing inequities and irrelevance of our school systems.  We propose an educational approach that prepares youth to be the leaders of tomorrow, to engage in real-world, local problem-solving with global implications through a partnership between Denver Public Schools, the City of Denver, and University of Colorado Denver.  We will build out our Critical Civic Inquiry (CCI) pedagogical approach and share it internationally through Open Education Resources.  We will establish best practices for K-12, higher education, city agencies, community partners, and industry to provide entrée for students to engage meaningfully in problem solving their local city’s most pressing inequities.

Why Our Team

Denver, Colorado offers a compelling location for centering equity work grounded in a citywide partnership due to our status as one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, alongside our legacy in the fight for civil rights.  This includes the Keyes case and desegregation, a history of redlining, and the Chicano movement.  All partners have explicitly begun the work of making racial equity and healing central to strategic planning, organizational development, and operations.  

The City of Denver has recently established a comprehensive 20-year strategic plan, with a leading vision of equity.  Mayor Hancock launched an Executive Order to ensure that citywide Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Teams operate at the agency/department level to deploy individualized Equity Plans to meet organization-specific strategies and tactics.

Denver Public Schools is a large, diverse urban school system with award-winning initiatives on student voice and leadership, and career pathway and apprenticeship programming. DPS centers equity in leadership, processes, and school improvement with an equity team, district-wide equity training, culturally responsive pedagogical practices and focusing on equity-focused strategic planning.  

Addressing racial equity with the following actions, the University of Colorado at Denver is a strong higher education partner for this work.  CU Denver has a track-record in curriculum design and they are committed to being a destination for our youth activists upon graduation.  

City, higher education and district leaders involved in this application have experience leading work of this nature, but this collaboration and student-centeredness will make this program one-of-a-kind.

Challenge Statement

A pandemic that has exposed and magnified a society marked by systemic racism.  An increasingly divided society where gun violence, climate change, and immigration are but a few of our most pressing issues.  The need for justice — racial, social, economic, and environmental justice — has never been greater.

The leadership needed for change at the magnitude and scale described above is extraordinary.  Transforming society to be just, where all people have the opportunity to thrive, is the undertaking that lies ahead.  Who is going to lead?  How will these leaders be intentionally prepared to do so?  This unprecedented need for leadership underscores the approach outlined in this proposal.  We need leaders who will show us a path forward that restores us as individuals and communities to wholeness, repairing the damage caused by racism.  We need leaders for racial equity who have vision, resilience, integrity and creativity.  We need leaders who will lead society to a new tomorrow, punctuated by health, fairness and opportunity for all.

Additionally, the structures to build a pipeline of leaders, to elevate and empower young voices, are few and far between.  Innovation in education has been marginal and incremental at best.  Our youth today are disempowered, often bored in school, and craving meaningful ways to engage and connect with issues that make a difference. Education needs to be more relevant.  This proposal seeks to mobilize the leadership in our youth we so desperately need right now, while simultaneously informing and reforming current approaches to public education.

Solution Overview

The heart of this proposal is empowering and mobilizing youth to be the racial equity leaders we need today and into the future.  Recent examples, such as Greta Thunberg and Amanda Gorman, exemplify the leadership potential found in youth.  We believe these young women are not the exception but the example of what is possible when youth have a platform to lead.  This proposal will impact our most resilient and marginalized youth first and foremost, but will also influence structures and organizations to be more inclusive. 

Our anticipated results will be: 

1) the evolution of curriculum, instruction and assessment across disciplines to support students in solving complex societal challenges through Critical Civic Inquiry (CCI) 

2) the creation of a sustainable citywide partnership structure to empower youth leadership.  Students will be central to creating Equity Plans in partnership with City of Denver EDI teams, receiving a mentor to learn how to navigate city processes, understand municipal code, and apply technical approaches to building equitable city programs, policies, and budgets. Students will receive training to learn how to do antiracism work within local government.  CU Denver will partner to extend this work to higher education and provide resources and support in the areas of CCI and design.

3) the development of a mechanism for replicating this approach in cities across the United States and beyond.  We will codify our shifts in curriculum, instruction, and assessment as  Open Education Resources, which are free and customizable for other cities to adapt to their context.

Intended Path to Impact



  • Students with a shared lived experience of ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized racism will have a new motivation and purpose for engaging in their learning
  • Citywide efforts to address racial inequities will be truly community led, with youth serving as the conduit, advocating on a wide range of local issues with global implications  
  • The work in Denver will be an exemplar for similar initiatives nationally and internationally, with other cities leveraging the free curricular resources we have created
  • We will have reimagined K-20 education as a means for growing global leaders.

Affirmation of Approach

The partnership with higher education provides a foundation to our approach based in research that stems from the university.  For example, studies by Kirshner et al [1-3] demonstrate that CCI can “ensure greater access for students and create a positive feedback loop between youth activism and equity-centered systems change,” as well as among students who participate, “increase ethnic-identity and civic self-efficacy.”  In addition, multiple studies on design thinking [4-8] reveals the direct connection, exemplified in CCI, between how the design process itself can serve to empower individuals engaged in that work of racial equity leadership. By having students design solutions for their own communities, their learning becomes immediately relevant, rooted in their local cultural knowledge and reinforcing a sense of agency.

External References

  1. Kirshner, B., Zion, S., Lopez, S., & Hipolito-Delgado, C. (in press). A theory of change for scaling Critical Civic Inquiry. Peabody Journal of Education.
  2. Hipolito-Delgado, C. P., & Zion, S. (2017). Igniting the fire within marginalized youth: The role of Critical Civic Inquiry in fostering ethnic identity and civic self-efficacy. Urban Education, 52(6), 699–717. 
  3. Zion, S. (2020). Transformative student voice: Extending the role of youth in addressing systemic marginalization in U.S. schools. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 20(1): 32–43.
  4. Brown, Tim. 2008. “Design Thinking.” Harvard Business Review 1–10.
  5. Banks, James A., Kathryn H. Au, Arnetha F. Ball, Philip Bell, Edmund W. Gordon, K. D. Gutierrez, Shirley Brice Heath, Carol D. Lee, Yuhshi Lee, Jabari Mahiri, Na’ilah Suad Nasir, Guadalupe Valdés, and Min Zhou. 2007. “Learning in and out of School in Diverse Environments. Life-Long, Life-Wide, Life-Deep.” 1–40.
  6. Minnich, Karissa. 2020. “Addressing Racial Equity Through Human-Centered Design.” APS Observer 33(8).
  7. Morrison, Sarah A. 2020. Getting to the Heart of Equity: A Human-Centered Design Case Study. Center for the Study of Social Policy.
  8. Camburn, Bradley A., Jan M. Auernhammer, Karen Hui En Sng, Paul J. Mignone, Ryan M. Arlitt, K. Blake Perez, Zack Huang, Subarna Basnet, Lucienne T. Blessing, and Kristin L. Wood. 2017. “Design Innovation: A Study of Integrated Practice.” American Society of Mechanical Engineers Digital Collection.