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Missoula after-school program for BIPOC youth creating next generation of leaders

The Association of BIPOC Youth is one of the many after-school programs offered by the non-profit organization EmpowerMT
BIPOC Missoula
Posted at 11:57 AM, Feb 20, 2024

MISSOULA — When you think of after school activities, sports, music lessons, or maybe a nap may come to mind.

But a program in Missoula is taking after school activities to the next level by giving young people of color an opportunity to express themselves, learn, and find a community.

The program — the Association of BIPOC Youth or ABY — is one of the many after-school programs the non-profit organization EmpowerMT offers youth in Missoula.

"It’s essentially an affinity space or an after-school club for students of color. BIPOC [means] Black, Indigenous, People of Color," said program co-founder and co-facilitator Lizzie Mills-Low. "It’s just for students who often don’t get that place in schools and in the community to come together and have a safe place to grow and learn and have community.”

Both Mills-Low and other co-founder Sylvie Tower agree that one of the biggest advantages of being part of the group is receiving leadership experience through planning activities and presentations for the group’s gatherings.

“We have a lot of mindfulness and resilience activities just so that we can help other youth to find coping mechanisms, especially with bullying and just getting through hard times,” Mills-Low said.

The stressors of being a young person of color in Western Montana are one of the reasons why the two students started the ABY program for middle and high school students in 2021.

"Growing up here in Montana in which the population of people of color — whether that be Native American people or Black people — is very low," Tower said. "And I think that’s pretty evident in our public schools. What then happens is, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about our experiences as kids of color. I grew up feeling isolated and alone and I think having a group where kids can come together and be with people who look like them can kind of help avoid that experience."

Jess Monis-Hernandez is the EmpowerMT youth program coordinator and a University of Montana practicum student who's finishing her master's degree in Social Work. She works closely with the group and listens to the common conversations among the children.

“That’s what I hear most come up in these groups is when they do speak up about issues, especially at school, they’re often silenced because there’s no one else to say ‘yeah, that happens to me too. And that’s not OK,'" Monis-Hernandez said.

Monis-Hernandez says it’s magical seeing the young people grow into outspoken leaders despite their past experiences.

“There’s something about a really unique shared experience that just really makes that powerful. Just having this group gives the youth the opportunity to be seen, to be heard,” Monis-Hernandez said.

EmpowerMT provides space for the development of positive identities, strengthening the connection to school through mentorship, and increasing skills and confidence in diffusing conflict through its after-school programs, according to the nonprofit's website.

These are skills that Tower, a 16-year-old University of Montana student, believes will help her in her journey to becoming an obstetrician.

"I think this is a way for me to develop interpersonal skills and leadership and understand hardships that people are going through because as a health care provider, you have to make sure more so than the medical skills you have to be good at social work, and this is a form of social work," Tower said.

Since forming the group, Mills-Low says it's been a rewarding experience to have seen the number of people in the group increase along with her confidence.

"A lot of the times we don't realize the fact that bullying and racism, really do get to you and tear you down," Mills-Low said. "But having a group where you can build strength in yourself and in your community and find friendships that help you feel supported, there's a lot of value in that."

For more information about the ABY program and to learn how to join, email youth@EmpowerMT.org or visit the EmpowerMT website for more information.