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RE-1’s first community organizer ready to “listen”

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GSHS grad Janeth Niebla

By Debbie Bruell

Sopris Sun Correspondent

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The Roaring Fork School District recently hired its first community organizer, Janeth Niebla, a 2004 graduate of Glenwood Springs High School. This one-year position is being paid for by a gift from the Manaus Fund, although Niebla is officially an employee of the school district.

Superintendent Rob Stein told The Sopris Sun that Niebla will be “convening meetings in homes and other community spaces to help us learn more about the hopes and challenges faced by our families.”

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As Niebla explained in a recent interview with The Sopris Sun, one of the “pillars” of the district’s strategic plan is community partnerships. Her primary goal in her new position will be to get families more engaged in the schools and to help build school-community partnerships.  

As a community organizer, Niebla told The Sun, she won’t simply be telling parents how to be more engaged. Instead, she’ll be talking with parents and other family members about what their concerns and interests are regarding their children’s schools. “All community organizing must begin with a listening phase,” Niebla said. “It’s hard to say exactly what I’ll be doing because it’ll up to the people in the community.”

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Many people don’t understand what organizing is about, Niebla told The Sun. “People are used to programs which tell people what their programs will be doing and how they’re going to do it.” In contrast, Niebla said, she’s going to be approaching community members and saying to them, “You tell me what you think.”  Her work will emerge “organically” through her conversations with community members.

Niebla said that she hopes to “create a space where all families can come together and talk together in meaningful ways … and find connections with teachers as well. Regardless of who we are and the language we speak, we’re all here to make sure kids are healthy and happy … . We can find that common ground.”

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Niebla said she will start by knocking on the doors of lots of Latino families, “listening to them … and getting to know them.” Her initial focus will be with Latino families, she explained, because it’s going to take more effort to get them involved in these kinds of conversations. Many low-income Latino families are “on survival mode … (consumed with) work, feeding their families, and getting ready for the next day,” Niebla said. “School meetings are not on their radar.”

Niebla said she will be working primarily with the families of students in three Roaring Fork schools: the new school being developed in the Eastbank area, and two additional schools that have yet to be determined.

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Niebla’s background

Born in Mexico, Niebla moved with her family to Basalt when she was nine years old. She attended Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) schools in Basalt and Glenwood Springs until graduating in 2004. She then attended Colorado Mountain College where she received her associate’s degree, and the University of Denver (DU), where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and communications.

Niebla has had over 10 years of experience doing community-organizing work. At DU she organized students around issues of diversity and inclusiveness. She was next hired by the Manaus Fund to help start the Valley Settlement Project. Later she worked with an organization in Long Island, New York, organizing, among other things, free pre-school for low-income families. She also worked at the State University of New York at Old Westbury helping students who were also parents to access additional resources and support services.

Niebla said the RFSD community organizing position came at a perfect time; she was ready to come back home to the Roaring Fork Valley and be near her family again.

Manaus Fund

According to the Manaus Fund website, its Valley Settlement Project is aimed at supporting “low-income families who are not successfully settled or attached to the community in which they live.” As Jon Fox-Rubin, executive director of the Manaus Fund, told The Sun, “Developing families’ engagement with the schools certainly fits our goal of settling families within our communities.”

Through another partnership between Manaus and the school district, Dr. Mark Warren, a professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and author of “A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform” (2011), will be spending the day on Nov. 17 talking with school district staff and local community leaders, and presenting a free talk for community members in the evening.

According to a press release from Warren, his evening presentation will address “how community organizing represents a promising approach to school reform as part of a broader agenda to build power for low-income communities and address the profound socio-economic and racial inequalities that affect the education of children.”

RFSD Superintendent Rob Stein told The Sun, “We are grateful to the Manaus Fund for sponsoring Mark’s visit. … I hope that others in and outside of schools will participate in this as part of an ongoing dialogue about how we can all work together to improve our communities.”

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Next steps:

Who: Dr. Mark Warren;

What: Talk on community organizing, school reform

and addressing inequalities;

When: Nov. 17, 5:30 to 7 p.m.;

Where: Roaring Fork High School.

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Published in The Sopris Sun on November 10, 2016.

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