Last fall, I was fortunate to be a guest of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County on a trip to the America’s Promise Alliance Summit in Washington, DC, where education and community leaders throughout the nation gathered to get the latest information about best practices in educational attainment. While the focus of the summit was on programs and organizations that have shown encouraging outcomes in tackling high school graduation rates, one presentation brought the room to its feet. A group of high school students were welcomed to the stage in pairs, all to present their findings on issues many communities have sought to tackle for decades. These “student researchers” were part of a project through the Center for Promise, a collaboration between Boston University and America’s Promise Alliance. Graduate students from Boston University were partnered with high school students from Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, Denver and Chicago to gather data on issues they faced daily: violence (both in media and in person), scarcity of healthy food options and dilapidated schools.

What was most remarkable about these presentations was the students’ own brutally honest accounts of their struggles to stay alive in cities with high rates of violence, drug addiction and crime. One pair of student researchers chose to investigate common health problems in their city and its correlation to food supply options. Through a series of photographs of local bodegas and convenience stores, the two young men hurdled a long list of barriers they faced in the search for fresh fruits and vegetables. Another pair, two young ladies from Philadelphia, used spoken word poetry to complement their heartbreaking research into safe sex practices of students at their high school. With each presentation, the students wove thoughtful artistic expressions through their research findings in a way that shook the audience to its core.

When asked about their inspiration to do the project, one young woman from Boston spoke of the trust she felt with her graduate project sponsor. The students snapped fingers in approval as she recounted the number of times well-meaning adults had imposed rules or programs that didn’t work because they didn’t have a true understanding of what students her age really needed. She stated it perfectly: “No decisions for us without us”.

This spirit followed our Sarasota team back to the GradNation Summit, hosted by the Education Foundation of Sarasota County at Suncoast Technical College in late October, 2016. Students from all district high schools attended to learn about “graduating with purpose.” Unlike the student researchers at the Washington, DC summit, we are fortunate to have a high school graduation rate nearly on par with the national average. However, we also know that out of every 100 ninth grade Sarasota County students, only 32 will complete an associate’s degree or higher. The GradNation attendees wrapped up the day by presenting their ideas on how we as a community could increase the high school graduation rate if given a grant of $500 for each school. The ideas ranged from after-school clubs dedicated to peer mentoring to presentations by high school seniors to eighth graders at a nearby middle school about what it takes to be successful in ninth grade and beyond. The three winning schools are in the midst of developing and implementing these ideas on their respective campuses for the 2016–17 school year. I am greatly looking forward to hearing how these bright young leaders will tackle such a challenge.

We all have a role to play, whether it be as one clarifying what the real challenges are ahead of us, one generating ideas or those developing and implementing the novel solutions that are brought forth. As we seek out ways to continually make our beloved hometown a better place for all, I hope we will remind ourselves of that simple phrase: No decisions for us without us.

Mimi Cirbusova is the Young Professionals Group coordinator for the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and assists in the coordination of efforts for the Talent4Tomorrow Partnership. A graduate of the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, Cirbusova previously worked as an elementary school art teacher in Sarasota County Schools as well as a senior prevention educator for the Child Protection Center in Sarasota, FL.