Community Learning Exchange

The Transformative Nature of Youth Empowerment

“It takes every color, creed and race to create spontaneous combustion for change.”

It was at a CLE gathering in North Carolina in 2013 that Travis Pinckney saw his purpose in life unfold. Before he attended “Looking Back to Move Forward: Leading for Racial Healing in Schools, Families, and Communities,” Travis developed something called College R-E-D, a national college preparation model designed to empower students to pursue a higher education and transform school culture. 

Travis illustrates the power of breaking our isolation and connecting people who are working to help their communities.

Just weeks before the CLE, Travis, fueled by his love for music and the power in youth voices, performed a concert for over a thousand students. They left feeling empowered and inspired to go to college. This, however, was only the beginning of Travis’ work.

It was at the Community Learning Exchange that Travis saw the model in his life come alive.

At the CLE, he met Mary Dobson, who invited Travis to speak to her students in North Carolina. There, he told his testimony and they discussed what it meant to be College R-E-D. Together, they laughed and cried and, at the end of it all, did a CLE-inspired circle with the school’s faculty.

“The whole CLE model and using circles has helped me and allowed my life to circulate. Now I’m giving that same thing to my kids and seeing this transformation in my and other children. It’s an intergenerational thing. It’s so great, I’m engaged, my kids are engaged and students are engaged…”

—Travis Pinckney

The kids were actively engaged in and excited about school, which could not have been said before. In January of 2014, Travis and his team began the process of collecting data and took part in a November conference where College R-E-D was featured.

All of this, Travis says, was birthed out of the CLE he attended in North Carolina.

Transforming Passions into Determination
Not only is Travis Pinckney constantly working with and for youth, but his life is a living, breathing testimony to the transformative potential of youth empowerment.

Growing up in a neighborhood with high crime and poverty in Jacksonville, Travis discovered a passion for music in his youth. Having less encouraged his creativity, and he found himself learning to play piano in his neighborhood church. It gave him a much needed outlet amid the turmoil of everyday life, ultimately giving Travis a clear trajectory — he wanted to go to pursue a higher education.

Going to college was unprecedented for his family, but Travis was resolute. It was not as easy, however, as deciding to go to college. Though music gave him determination, he was not academically ready. He failed the ACT test time and time again — all the while sliding into a dangerous lifestyle that involved learning to sell crack cocaine. The dealer teaching him, however, was arrested when Travis took the ACT a fifth time, waking him up to a further realization that he wanted more for himself and his life.

Travis drew a line for himself. He was not going to go that far.

A New Direction
Travis’ uncle, who was both a police officer and a pastor, helped pull Travis out of drug dealing. At the age of 16, with his uncle’s encouragement, Travis began to play piano publicly at his local church. He got so good that his uncle built a studio in the back of the church, where Travis made music about spiritual, academic and personal development. Neighborhood kids joined Travis in this safe haven, where they wrote songs, put them to tracks and took them to the community.

“Art is unapologetic. It cannot be duplicated. It comes from your heart. It can’t be put into a manual. When children have an opportunity to take what’s inside of them and give it the world, something transformational happens. That happened to me and I didn’t know it, but it was the basis of my research. What was coming from my heart was being valued.”
—Travis Pinckney

Through his uncle’s affirmation, Travis found himself being empowered while also empowering the other kids in his neighborhood. Still, he didn’t have the ACT scores he needed to get into college. His true goal still felt out of reach despite his great musical talent.

In the end, however, his determination was fruitful. Travis ultimately received a scholarship to the University of North Florida, where he majored in elementary education. There, he met Dr. Chris Janson (a part of the National CLE Evaluation and planning team), who helped Travis take his passion for using music and video to inspire the next generation of leaders to a larger, wider platform. Dr. Janson also invited Travis to participate in local CLE’s he hosted in the Jacksonville area and then invited him to attend his first national CLE in North Carolina.

From Affirmation to Empowering Others
Just as Travis had a music studio in his local church, he and Dr. Janson were able to place one in a middle school. There, students engaged in narrative therapy. They wrote down the issues and challenges that they were facing and discussed the topics as a group. They would write lyrics and record songs, giving them not only much-needed catharsis, but a platform to be heard. The personal support that the curriculum provided reinforced morale in the school and helped students better develop social and life skills.

Travis, mentored by Dr. Janson, found his success catapulted with a birds’ eye view of the system. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree and went on to pursue his masters degree. Travis then found himself teaching in an urban high school. He applied the same method of empowerment through music, film and video for his students, explaining:

“I was a cultural asset broker. I would harvest these kids’ stories and use them as assets for teaching, planning, for school improvement plans and things in the boardroom. These voices needed to be heard. They were getting what people thought they needed, rather than what they actually needed. I wanted to transform students into stakeholders in their education.”

An Extended CLE Family

“I feel like I have my life’s purpose. The CLE in North Carolina gave me one of those missing pieces. The CLE in Jacksonville gave me the last pieces to my purpose.”

Initially, Travis inadvertently focused his work on urban African-American students, because that culture and community was one that he was familiar with. At the CLE in Jacksonville, however, he realized that his calling was not to a single demographic, but that he had to move beyond racial, economic and state lines with his work.

“The CLE in Jacksonville gave me the opportunity to have an extended family and a bird’s eye view and engaged with people of different ethnicities and economic and geographical backgrounds. No matter what background you come from you can be successful if you work towards being ready, empowered and determined. That process never ends until the day you die. It is a never ending line. The CLE gave me that.”

—Travis Pinckney

Through the Jacksonville Community Learning Exchange, Travis found not only what was missing from his work — an all-encompassing scope — but a family. He has people from all over the country engaging with him regularly through text, asking him how he’s doing.

“It’s created a better part of me, knowing I have these brothers and sisters across the country,” Travis explained, “This is the best state I’ve ever been in in my life. And that came a lot from the Jacksonville CLE.”

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Comment by Larry Hodgkins on November 27, 2014 at 6:17pm

Travis has an inspiring personal story but the ways in which he is helping others achieve is even more impressive. We presented the above referenced video at the 2014 UCEA national conference. My middle school in NC has implemented the College RED model this year as a tool to address student motivation and promote long-range thinking. College RED is a perfect fit for the growth concept that I am working to build at my school. Travis has combined his musical talents with his counseling expertise to inspire and motivate adolescent students.

College RED is part of a larger effort to empower students and our entire South Creek Middle School community. We have also held a 1-day mini CLE and I am currently using the site-visit pedagogy with students for interactive field trips to local places that have special meaning and power. Our next trip centers on the Williamston Freedom Movement and will focus on students as leaders - the student trip will very closely resemble the Williamston site visit that was part of the North Carolina CLE in October, 2013.

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