Real Integration in Public Schools #stillnotequal

Season 2, Episode 4

On episode 4 of the CitySCOPE Podcast, Arianna Blanco and Naomi Shachter, co-hosts from episode 3, continue the conversation about race and place, focusing this week on education.  We speak with Barbara Biasi of the Yale School of Management on the role of finance in shaping racial and class based inequities in public schools and efforts to remediate them. Biasi describes the highly decentralized nature of public education in the United States, resulting in a trade-off between local control and inter-district funding equity. We also interview Sarah Medina Camiscoli, founder and former executive director of IntegrateNYC, a youth-led organization seeking integration and equity in New York public schools, on their efforts to integrate the largest, and also one of the most segregated, public school districts in the country. 

Listen by clicking above, or listen and subscribe on applegooglespotifystitcher, and soundcloud.


1. Supreme Inequality by Adam Cohen, Penguin Press 2020, mentioned in podcast can be ordered here, listen to a book talk with Adam Cohen at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. here

2. Learn more about Professor Rucker C. Johnson’s research on school desegregation here

3. IntegrateNYC website

4. UCLA Civil Rights Project report on NY school segregation, released in 2014, mentioned in the podcast here and most recent report from UCLA Civil Rights Project on NY showing decline in segregation in gentrifying neighborhoods here

Episode Transcript: 

Kate Cooney:

This is CitySCOPE.

Uzma Amin:

A podcast from the Inclusive Economic Development Lab at the Yale School of Management.

Evan Oleson:

Where we learn about what might be possible in our city by talking with others about what is happening in theirs.

Joy Chen:

Are we ready?

Allen Xu:

Let’s go.

MUSIC (K.Dub):

Elm City, what up?

Arianna Blanco (00:13):

Welcome to Season 2 Episode 4 of the CitySCOPE podcast. My name is Arianna Blanco, and I’m a recent graduate of the Development Economics Program at the Yale Graduate School. I will be one of your hosts for the episode.

Naomi Shachter (00:41):

My name is Naomi Shachter, and I’m a first year MBA student at Yale SOM.

Kate Cooney (00:45):

And I’m Kate Cooney, Senior Lecturer at Yale School of Management.

Naomi Shachter (00:49):

On the last episode, we explored some work coming out of Minneapolis on housing covenants that’s really making an impact on how residents understand the geographies of race and space in which they are living. On today’s episode, we’ll turn our focus to segregation in public schools. Let’s set the stage before we get into it because Arianna, isn’t it the desegregation fight a thing of the past?

Arianna Blanco (01:10):

It’s true that many people believe that racial segregation of public school system in the U.S. ended in 1954 with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, but segregation has persisted and by some metrics has actually increased over time. Why is this and what will it take to actually desegregate American schools? Over the past few weeks, we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Barbara Biasi, an Assistant Professor of Economics here at the Yale School of Management along with Sarah Camiscoli, the founder and co-chair of IntegrateNYC. First, we’ll talk with Barbara about how the education system in the U.S. works and how local control can lead to inadequate financing and segregation that are both so inimical to students’ outcomes.

Naomi Shachter (01:54):

We’ll also hear more about Sarah Camiscoli’s work on the front lines working with the young people in NYC’s public schools demand a more integrated educational system. IntegrateNYC specifically turns to students as the experts on the impacts of segregation and inequality and focuses on youth voices to design solutions and advocate for transformative policies based on their specific needs. The organization has developed the 5R’s of Real Integration along with a 62-point platform in order to fully integrate NYC public schools.

Arianna Blanco (02:28):

That’s right, Naomi. We begin by asking Barbara Biasi, an education economist at the Yale School of Management, why it is that public school students differ in their access to resources depending on where they live.

Barbara Biasi (02:40):

if I were to describe the U.S. public education system, especially kind of contrasting it with other systems of public education around the world, I think one of the most distinguishing features of it is the fact that it’s very, very decentralized. What this means in practice is that a lot of the decisions on the offering of public education services happens either at the state level or in some cases even at the school district level - so at the very, very kind of lower levels of government. There are pros and cons of this. One of the advantages that we could think of is that the type of education services that these lower level of governments can provide could be better tailored to the demand or the type of students that say, a school district serves. Disadvantages of having so much decentralization are that sometimes the type of educational experience that students that live in different areas, not just in different states, but also in different kind of smaller geographic areas within a state can sometimes be very, very different. And in some instances, this can end up being problematic from the perspective of say the equality of the educational opportunity, which is something that we should aim for.

Barbara Biasi (04:07):

I think one of the kind of best descriptions of when this happens is when it comes to the financing of public schools. Historically, U.S. public schools have been funded for the most part through revenues from local taxation and in particular local property taxes, which on one hand implied that school districts or communities that wanted to spend more on public schools, they could just tax themselves more and raise more money as a consequence of that. But another consequence of this type of financing scheme is that school districts that had higher property tax basis, meaning higher wealth, which is usually associated with better socioeconomic status and higher income, were also able to raise more revenues and therefore have better funded public schools. And this has led to situations in which districts within the same state were spending wildly different amounts of money on a per pupil basis. And this is also kind of the realization that this was going on was what triggered a wave of reforms that started in I think, in the mid ‘60s, early ‘70s. And for the most part, they were reforms of school financing that started with lawsuits that were actually started as class actions from the parents, challenging the constitutionality of the system.

Naomi Shachter (05:46):

That’s really interesting, Arianna. So what Professor Biasi is saying is that the funding formulas for public education built in unequal access to resources for kids in poorer districts.

Arianna Blanco (05:57):

That’s right, Naomi. And as Professor Biasi mentioned, there were some important court cases in the early 1970s that had the potential to create a more equal America according to journalist Adam Cohen and his new book about the Supreme Court. These cases culminated in the Supreme Court case, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, in which students from a poor district in Texas argued that the funding between the wealthiest and poorest districts was so wide that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. According to Cohen’s book, 400 students at Edgewood High School in San Antonio walked out listing grievances that included overcrowding, lack of textbooks, unqualified teachers, and unsafe buildings. While in nearby Alamo Heights School District, which was much wealthier and whiter with 81% of the student body being white compared with the Edgewood District, which was 90% Latino And 6% black, Cohen writes that the teachers were paid 25% more and all had college degrees. And that the student-teacher ratios were lower and that students had newer and more plentiful textbooks. Additionally, the facilities in the wealthy district included an Olympic-size swimming pool and an air-conditioned club house. While in Edgewood, students in the elementary school were made to attend classrooms in a structurally unsafe building where the second and third floors had been condemned.

Naomi Shachter (07:20):

Wow! That sounds like a compelling case. What happened?

Arianna Blanco (07:24):

The School Finance Fairness movement resulted in a number of state court cases that were making their way to the Supreme Court. In 1971, the California Supreme Court ruled that California school finance system violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause as did the federal district court in Minnesota on a similar case.

Arianna Blanco (07:42):

Later that year, the vote at the federal district court in Texas went in the Edgewood District’s favor. But in 1973, the Supreme Court reversed the district court and upheld Texas’ school finance system by a 5 to 4 vote on two premises. First, that the poor were not a suspect class and should not receive heightened scrutiny. And second, that the right to education was not guaranteed by the Constitution. This left the plaintiffs in all of these cases and members of poor school districts throughout the country to take matters up at the state level, where state constitutions do have language about access to education. So over the next 47 years, the court battles did move to state courts and won in many states but failed in many others. One thing that everyone agrees on is that if the Supreme Court had ruled differently in the 5 to 4 vote in 1973, schools will be far more equal in this country. Here’s Professor Biasi again on how things work today.

Barbara Biasi (08:40):

What the situation looks like today is of course no state relies entirely on local revenues to finance public schools. What happens in practice is that approximately 35% to 40-45% of total revenues of the school districts come from local resources, the rest is funds that come from the state. And what the states have tried to do is trying to allocate money to the school district so that they would be able to even out any differences in local revenues per pupil. But of course, these schemes are sometimes complicated and they’re imperfect, so we are still in a situation in which in some states more than others, funding is not evenly distributed across districts.

Barbara Biasi (09:29):

And there’s another additional issue, which is that we often focus our attention on spending per pupil but actually the amount of money that it costs to educate a student depends a lot on the characteristics of the student. So we know, for example, that educating a special education student requires a different amount of resources than educating a non special ed student. And so this on one side creates even larger disparities in the resources that are available to each school district to work, to operate. And on the other side, this can also create sometimes some perverse incentives from the perspective of the schools and the school district in attracting certain categories of students.

Naomi Shachter (10:15):

Decentralized school financing certainly contributes to huge discrepancies in student outcomes over time.

Arianna Blanco (10:21):

Right. And what the plaintiffs were arguing back in the 1970s is that local poor districts don’t actually have any control. They can’t charge themselves enough in property tax to fully fund public schools and property values are low.

Barbara Biasi (10:32):

The fact that school financing is so local also implies that the quality of public schools gets capitalized into house prices. And so the fact that we see so much residential segregation is sort of reinforced by the fact that certain families with certain characteristics, even if they wanted to move into a school district with better schools, they could simply have a very, very hard time doing so because of high house prices. And so this implies that the children from lower income families or families with certain demographics are kind of going to be stuck attending certain types of schools, which in turn reinforces the segregation of public schools.

Arianna Blanco (11:17):

I can see how that snowballs into a negative feedback loop. There is this overwhelming narrative that busing, which was once viewed as a saving grace to integrate schools has largely failed, and that there are no easy solutions to school segregation.

Barbara Biasi (11:30):

I don’t think busing is the solution to our problems, but there are instances in which it seems to have worked. I think it’s important to take a look at the context a little bit and to also think about the cost of busing for the students. And I’m not just talking about monetary cost, I’m also talking about cost in terms of time and in terms of effort that is required from sometimes very young children to spend sometimes one or two hours on a bus. So that is definitely something that needs to be kept in mind.

Arianna Blanco (12:02):

Tax sharing across school districts at the county level is another possibility. In Louisville, Kentucky, the city of Louisville combined its government with Jefferson County’s in 2003, sharing tax revenues and resources throughout the entire metropolitan area so that the prosperity in one part of the county both directly and indirectly affects parts of the area that are lacking prosperity. The district put schools in clusters of diverse neighborhoods where parents fill out an application listing their preferences for schools in the cluster and the district assigns students to certain schools to achieve diversity goals based on this rank preference. The system ranks census blocks on factors including the racial makeup, the educational attainment of adults, and household income. Then it mixes up students from various blocks. This has led to higher achievement outcomes for low-income students, which in turn created a better workforce for the metropolitan area. Studies have also shown that students who attended integrated schools in Jefferson County were better prepared to work with people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds than those who did not. This reduced white flight to the suburbs and kept property values relatively stable. What are some of the other benefits of integration that makes school desegregation something that’s so important to work toward?

Barbara Biasi (13:20):

What Rucker Johnson’s work shows is that these types of policies can actually end up having a positive effect on some subgroups of the population of students. The study, just to sort of explain it very briefly, looks at the effect of a wave of court desegregation orders regarding public school districts which basically mandated the school districts to either start busing programs, essentially start busing students from one district to the other or even within the same district across different schools, or in some other cases required redesigning of school district boundaries. What it finds is that when those court orders were passed, the schools ended up becoming much more racially balanced and the outcomes of black students, both in an absolute term and relative to the outcomes of white students, improved dramatically. Not just purely educational outcomes such as test scores or rates of graduation from high school but also things like rates of college going as well as earnings. And one of the interesting aspects about this study is that he finds that black students seem to do better after desegregation orders, but that white students were essentially unaffected. So it’s not like black students were benefited from this desegregation plans at the expense of the white students. So this is also something that I think should be kept in mind when evaluating these policies. So it seems like a win-win type of policy.

Barbara Biasi (15:06):

In terms of other types of policies, I hate to always go back to the financing of public schools, but making sure that there is a certain minimum amount of resources that gets spent on public schools and we don’t introduce wide differences in the resources the different schools have to work with. In the medium run, maybe not in the super short run, but in the medium run, it can lead to a situation in which we end up seeing less residential segregation which would probably also come hand-in-hand with more racially balanced public schools.

Arianna Blanco (15:44):

Thank you so much for that background, Barbara. There’s so many structural and regional drivers of school segregation that make it seem like an insurmountable problem to overcome. But also, the record shows that even within this fraught history, pool taxes at the regional level and desegregation efforts in their own right can drive significantly better outcomes.

Arianna Blanco (16:04):

Let’s move to talking about IntegrateNYC, where a group of students are following the tradition of those Edgewood High School students in San Antonio in the 1970s, looking at the material impacts of segregation and school financing and forcing some hard questions. New York City has the largest and by many metrics, the most segregated school system in the United States with over 1.1 million students across 1,800 different schools. We spoke with Sarah Camiscoli, founder of IntegrateNYC and asked her when did she first become aware of segregation in the public schools.

Sarah Camiscoli (16:39):

I decided to go work in the South Bronx, which was the community where my mother spent the early years of her childhood and then later moved to Queens, to the suburbs. And so I was interested in working in a community where I could be engaged with issues, public education. And so I worked in District 7, which is the most socioeconomically segregated congressional district in the country. On my first day of teaching ESL, I walked into a classroom and I introduced myself in English and Spanish and I had a Latino student raise his hand and say, “Miss, I don’t speak Spanish. I actually just want to know why I’m in this class.” And it really struck me that I did not even have the beginning of an understanding of the way that socioeconomic and racial segregation manifested particularly in this community so that a second generation Latinx student was slotted into an ESL class inaccurately for 10 years and just time after time had well-intentioned teachers and administrators involving themselves in interventions that were completely misplaced. That student, his name’s Eric, really transformed the course of my career because I realize that my job as an ESL teacher at that point in that district was specifically to think about how ESL wasn’t serving my students, and how to make sure to support them if they felt that that service wasn’t necessary to them and that track wasn’t necessary, integrating them into the more mainstream track.

Arianna Blanco (18:08):

Sarah, from that first experience in the ESL classroom, how did IntegrateNYC emerge as a broader effort from this early work?

Sarah Camiscoli (18:16):

I started doing some research with students and asking them what are the common denominators that has left you for 10 years in a track that doesn’t serve you and a track the longer you remain in, decreases your graduation rate significantly. And that’s really how I got involved in the advocacy work with how do we join the young people, specifically the young people of color and young people of color from socioeconomically segregated districts, to tell the stories of the impact of segregation so that our interventions actually respond to the complex web of needs and problems that are a function of years and years of de facto segregation and disregard of the community voices that are most at the impact of these issues.

Sarah Camiscoli (19:02):

I think the two most important points that I’d like to make about this work is that it’s collaborative and it’s responsive. Often, we can use those words in a way in which we have a single interaction with a person and we’ve responded to them and we’ve collaborated with them or a group of people to think through that particular interaction, instead of thinking about responsiveness as an ongoing process in which there is almost a constant overflow of issues to handle and a constant need to build new flexible collaborative structures that breathe, that address that overflow. The way that our organization has been designed is that we work in an intergenerational multiracial dynamic in which we are constantly involving young people who are at the impact of these issues and supporting them to investigate the problems they’re saying are the greatest obstacles for them, and then engaging collaborative networks to properly respond to those needs as they change.

Sarah Camiscoli (20:05):

One of my favorite stories is a student named Timothy who’s one of the original students that really founded this work. We were sitting in room 146. It was sort of a sticky September day where it’s a little bit too warm and it’s the fall and the air conditioning is not really working or the windows may not be opened enough, but it’s after lunch so we’re all sort of tired and it’s time to go home, but we have a couple more periods left, and we had this meeting of students. And so we were talking about what are issues that we think are overlooked in schools in terms of equity. And Timothy’s response was, he just stood up and he looked up from his phone and said, “The lunch, the lunch sucks.” And everyone kind of laughed at him and was like, “Oh, Timothy.” Like, oh, there he goes, being a teenager, being disruptive, wasn’t really paying attention, isn’t really taking the issue seriously. This isn’t an actual research question. But then another student looked up and seemed more engaged in the conversation said, “Yeah, the lunch does suck. I don’t eat actually sometimes for the entire day. I don’t have breakfast and I don’t eat the free breakfast here. I don’t eat the free lunch. And then at home, sometimes there’s no dinner.”

Sarah Camiscoli (21:18):

That question became our first research inquiry in which we first did a survey of young people, asking them about the lunch quality and what their experience was. The first finding we had was that young people kept talking about ice chips in the food. That the food was not properly defrosted. And then young people were talking about sometimes foreign objects being found in the food. Then young people were speaking about infestations in the building. Additionally, when we did our school exchanges, bringing young people from different schools to go into other schools of different demographics, so predominantly white institutions or predominantly white schools entering into predominantly black and brown schools, and then doing research in those schools about what differences they saw and what strengths and areas of growth both schools had. Not seeing good and bad schools, but seeing those differences. Especially Timothy, when he did one of those school exchanges said, “Their cafeteria is like a mall. It’s like, there’s like a Nathan’s and a Burger King and there’s a chef.” He had just seen this dramatic difference. At the time, the kids were saying to us, “This isn’t integration. This isn’t integration. This is an equity conversation.” But as we did more research and we collaborated with nonprofits, that thought specifically about health in The Bronx, we found that there had been some research done that showed that the older building, the less likely that building was to have an updated kitchen.

Sarah Camiscoli (22:44):

In New York, there are three kinds of kitchens at the time. Warming kitchens essentially had industrial-style microwaves. And if a school had a warming kitchen, the majority of the meals sent to them were frozen microwave meals. The second kind of kitchen would be a modified kitchen. And the modified kitchens would have some burners and some microwaves. And the third kind of kitchen was called the cooking kitchen, which had all of this material for fresh foods to be made. And the foods delivered to the schools were a function of what equipment they had to make food. Now, all of this seems like this long diatribe about lunch and it means nothing, but it really gets to the heart of an issue. At the most basic level of need, have you eaten today? Has a low-income young person gotten access to a food that they’re actually going to consume? It’s a humongous equity question that plays into so many other factors. For example, why are predominately black and brown and low-income youth in the schools with microwaves? Why are they eating frozen foods? Why are those young people not getting fed properly and then sitting in a classroom with a whole slew of other issues?

Sarah Camiscoli (23:53):

This story really speaks to a lot of the ways that we approach our research, which is collaborating with young people and being responsive in a way that generally research institutions and teachers and administrators aren’t responsive because we dismiss comment as infantile or not a useful problem, instead of thinking about actually the greatest concern for this young person who’s at the highest impact is really how we need to be focusing our research. The way that that ended was we ended up doing some media pieces about the issue, bringing some light to it. We had a meeting for the Department of Education and conversations with cafeteria workers and other folks who are working in the health and nutrition departments at the Department of Education. And then ended up, there was a pretty comprehensive report that was released not with us but later on by CUNY that identified real disparities and infestations in schools. Now, that’s not solved. That’s still a problem. Young people are still not eating, low-income youth of color are still eating not properly warmed chicken and hamburgers in school. But that is a central piece of our conversation now when we’re speaking around integration.

Sarah Camiscoli (25:09):

That was similar with how we worked on our lawsuit against the Department of Education for sports access. We had a young woman who wanted to be a cheerleader, but there was no cheerleading team. And so she just kept saying, “All I want to do is cheerlead. This is ridiculous.” And instead of justifying why she couldn’t or dismissing it, we did research and collaborated with advocates who had been working on this issue for several years. And then did the legal statistical research to really ask, what is the likelihood for a young person of color to get access to a publicly-funded sports team? And then was able to initiate litigation. Again though, that required our work being responsive and then building the collaborative relationship as we did with the enrollment to have other folks who may have more expertise in doing that particular research that could manifest in policy change or in litigation to do that for us and then kind of join those forces.

Arianna Blanco (26:03):

Those are really powerful stories. Integration can seem abstract, but you’re showing what it looks like in particular experiences and lived inequities in these specific examples.

Naomi Shachter (26:14):

Yeah, that really gives a deeper understanding of what’s at stake. How did this organization leave the classroom and turn into what it is today?

Sarah Camiscoli (26:21):

In 2014, my actual role was I was an ESL teacher and I was also an adviser to a group of students. And so that was the infrastructure where I had those conversations. Simultaneously, I was organizing with some amazing groups such as Teachers Unite which does restorative justice organizing in New York City. And so I was doing work in and outside of the building to really build and understand connections and issues that I really wanted to work on around racial justice. And then in 2015, I pitched to have a class designed, and the class was an elective course. I built a curriculum to talk about these issues and to do research in and outside of the building which culminated in school exchanges. During that time, we got some media coverage from WNYC and from Huffington Post and several other media outlets that were saying, wow! Check out this group of young people who’s organizing around the issue of school integration right around the time that the UCLA report came out that said New York State have the most segregated schools in the country.

Sarah Camiscoli (27:26):

As we moved forward, I met some young people who are like, “This is great, but you’re basically running this like a club.” One of the students particularly, her name is Hebh Jamal, she is an amazing activist. She works a lot around during anti-Islamophobia work in schools and in the city. She’s an amazing activist and she reached out to me and said, “You know, I’d love to work with you, but I have to tell you your infrastructure isn’t built to shift power or to really shift material resources or to shift people’s experience of their own autonomy. Your infrastructure is built essentially to have young people talk about this.” She said, “Let’s find a way to bring in people across the city.” So then we built out a youth council that would meet once a month. And at first, we have five schools and then 10 schools and then 12 schools, and then 15 schools. And we would join young people from around the city with educators and parents to have a conversation every month about the way that the issues of segregation was impacting their communities and their individual lives. And what we saw was very, very different experiences. For example, the priority of a young person in a severely segregated, highly criminalized school in the North Bronx was very different than the priority of a predominantly white school on the Upper East Side. While one student might say, “I don’t have culturally responsive curriculum and the stress levels are very high, and I am the only Latina in the school and I have never had a Latina teacher.” Another Latina in another school might say, “I am scanned every day for weapons and my friends and I deal with brute force from school safety officers.” So we had to find a way of making them commensurate with one another and having them make sense, and not dismissing the students saying, “I want different curriculum.” Or, “I want to meet teachers like me.” Or students saying, “I don’t want school safety officers having the autonomy to put their hands on me.” How do we make sense of that within the conversation of integration and not tell these young people that’s not related? When in reality, they are deeply related because they are happening at the site of the same body that we are saying is impacted.

Sarah Camiscoli (29:35):

So once we started really building that infrastructure, I realized that I needed to change my own personal workday to be able to create a flow that was more sustainable. So I ended up teaching part time and doing some coordination around ESL services to try to make sure young people were properly integrated back into mainstream. And then I just started taking on this project full time. And I spoke about before the importance of acknowledging the means by which classism and racism are just so rampant in interventions and so both macro and micro. Simultaneously, so is the question about, what does my career look like? Like, I think that I really at the time, I had the privilege to but took a real pay cut and didn’t have a series of wealthy investors behind me and made some partnerships and connections to be able to fund this work, but I took a risk. And I think that’s another conversation that’s really important for this because as we talk about these stories, without doing the personal work required to really shift what we understand to be of value and what we understand to be of status, collaborative community work that’s responsive doesn’t happen because you don’t have the relationships and you don’t have the time and community. This is not a touch and go process. And so being in that space and being able to hold on to vision and relationships and collaboration and what we knew we were responding to was what helped us to keep building and keep asking people to invest their time and money in this work because we were so close to the problem. And as people began to build trust with us because we’re so close to the problem and there were young people in every meeting we had, and young people who were impacted in every conversation we went to, which pushed policymakers and leaders to have to adjust the room or adjust their speaking and recognize that the infrastructure and recognize that the networks that were built were fundamentally leaving young people out of this conversation.

Sarah Camiscoli (31:40):

We started to get more support. And as a function, we were able to garner some pro bono support to help us to apply for 501(c)(3) status. Once we applied for 501(c)(3) status, we were then able to apply for bigger grants. Once you get one grant, then you are able to qualify for a different grant, which then qualifies you for a network of another grant, which then is a whole web of other opportunities. And so once we kind of jumped over that hurdle, we started to be seen as more of a legitimized nonprofit in the space. I think that’s how we’ve really grown to the infrastructure we’ve had now and now have been able to be invited to be on the School Diversity Advisory Group and be part of designing the policy for New York city public schools to desegregate, to be invited as a member of the National Coalition of School Diversity and to be on their steering committee and thinking about youth leadership. To be involved in a series of other coalitions and to be seen as a real player that is, I would say, creating the conversation and setting the standard for what it means to do integration work and the importance of including young people and how to really elevate and include them well.

Arianna Blanco (32:44):

That’s quite the journey, Sarah. I really admire that IntegrateNYC focuses on students as the experts and then turns to those young people to design solutions and advocate for transformative policy. We’ve been exploring a theme this season on the podcast - rethinking community engagement and exploring models for engagement that really results in systemic change. I’m very interested in the model of IntegrateNYC as a youth-led organization specifically. Can you talk a little bit more about how students are engaged and encouraged to participate? Do they face any major barriers with regard to credibility?

Sarah Camiscoli (33:18):

So there are three pillars of our work that really speak to the way that we engage young people; Real representation, real integration, and real democracy. One of the frameworks that we’ve used a lot is a positive youth development framework that was adapted by two scholars around youth development, Nowicki and Hart. And there are eight tiers of thinking about young people. We use these tiers to ask ourselves what role we’re having young people play. So the eight roles start at decoration, which is the idea that young people are used to bolster a cause. We do not have any roles that correlate with decoration. The second level is tokenism, where young people appear to be given a choice but they in fact have little or no choice. We also don’t design any roles around tokenism. The other six elements are young people are assigned, but informed. They are engaged in informed dialogue. They are engaged in adult-initiated, but shared decision making. They are engaged in youth-initiated partnerships. They are engaged in youth-initiated leadership or they are engaged in youth organizing and governing. We do not design a role at Integrate for a young person without actively thinking about at what level of youth development and leadership that role has a place. So currently on the board, I co-chair with a young person named Elijah Fox. The reason we have required that we have a youth co-chair at all times is so we make sure youth have a central role in the organization, driving programmatic and strategic decisions, and that they’re empowered to be part of those shared decision-making processes with the opportunity to learn from life experience from adults, and adults to learn from their life experience.

Sarah Camiscoli (35:05):

One of our bylaws, which I think really reflects this is that we do not have quorum without a young person present. I cannot get something passed on the board around mission or resource allocation without one of them present. If one of them leaves the board, I’m going to have to find another youth board member or my organization will not function. Often, what we see around youth leadership is that with real representation, there’s a youth advisory board, which on this structure would really be about a sort of informed dialogue or adult-initiated shared decision-making, where the adults are going to the young people and saying, “What do you think?” But then taking the recommendations as they please and able to pass whatever they want without necessarily having accountability of those young people. In terms of how our organization works moving down is that we don’t have one executive director. We have an executive committee. And our executive committee consists of an executive adult director, an executive college director and an executive high school director. And all three of those people are paid with pay equity, so they make the same amount by hourly wage. So we have one full-time adult staff member since the college and high school directors are part-time, but they make money at the same rates because we believe that the educational experience that our adult executive director brings and work experience is no better than the actual lived experience of our impacted young people.

Arianna Blanco (36:30):

So what exactly are the 5R’s of Real Integration? How do we take an abstract concept and turn it into real tangible changes in the educational system?

Sarah Camiscoli (36:39):

We have a five-point platform that involves shifting enrollment and barriers to entry for enrollment for all young people, but focusing specifically on low-income youth and youth of color. Because the experience and the barriers and screens that we put up to separate and sort young people, do not serve white and or privileged youth either. That is one really key point. Two, the second point of our platform is the resource allocation, making sure that young people across identities, specifically suspect classifications and identities that are historically oppressed by systems that folks are sharing the resources of public dollars. Third, relationships, thinking about how young people are relating to themselves and their culture and their history and their community through curriculum design and leadership opportunities. Four, thinking about teacher representation and making sure that our teaching staff reflects the students that we’re teaching. And then the last piece is restorative justice and decriminalization and thinking about how we make schools places that are safe for young people, not just criminalizing.

Sarah Camiscoli (37:38):

For us, that’s what real integration looks like in theory. Now, we’ve worked with 70 nonprofits, the School Diversity Advisory Group to implement 62 policies accepted by the mayor and by the chancellor that the plan is to implement in New York City. What does implementing that look like? It looks like a 5 to 10-year commitment of designing metrics for evaluation and assessment and implementation that are designed by young people, not by a group of five policymakers who don’t even have their children in a public school saying what evaluation looks like. And how do we use law and lawyering to be able to support that implementation? This was a movement of young people. So now, how do we design lawyering strategies that don’t reinstate the same problematic infrastructure of predominantly white and or educationally and economically privileged people calling the shots? Like, at this point, I’m going to be graduating with a Master’s in Education and a degree in law, how do I make sure that we’re not designing a legal department where I’m picking the actual priorities then reinstating the same institutional infrastructure where the people with the least education are not in a position of institutional power and are not feeling autonomous? They are coming to me to go fix it or find it or figure it out. We want to make sure that that’s part of our implementation too, is both the process and the product; that young people are authentically represented, that we are authentically doing integration work that actually is felt, and that we’re pushing it to really shift how we understand real democracy.

Sarah Camiscoli (39:20):

The last thing I’ll say it as we’re thinking about this legal department, we’re looking to expand into a constituency of young people that we have not yet engaged, which are students who we are not in the school building. At this point, all of our policies have been designed for young people who we are assuming are in the building, which is a real oversight. Because the most severely segregated young people are out of school suspended, they are involuntarily committed, they are incarcerated, they are deported, or they are homeless. And so what are we doing as an organization to provide legal services to those young people who aren’t able to come to a monthly meeting or do a part-time job as whatever, directors of social media, but we’re providing direct services to them. And then from those direct services, getting data so that it’s informing our policy and that implementation again is collaborative and responsive. And we think creatively about that collaboration, not just, can you come work for us or can you come to this meeting where we will eat panini sandwiches and have a well-thought-out agenda? But instead, maybe you just come to us because you have a major legal issue that will change the course of the next 12 years of your life. And then from that story, you coming to us and trusting us with your case, trusting with a question, we then can utilize that information. And that is a collaboration in itself.

Sarah Camiscoli (40:41):

That’s really where we’re moving. What our vision is, is that we can become a hub where we train other individuals to bring this organic work elsewhere. I think what’s so key in this work is that even talking about policy and not speaking about Annette, or Dekaila, or Leanne, or Timothy, or Justin… Not having the names of young people on the tip of your tongue when you are talking about a policy is already too far. So it’s important for me that we share this model and can become a hub for people to bring it to their own space and support them in that implementation, but that we stay local. That we stay localized to New York. This model was built for New York, this model was built out of New York, and this model has not been properly implemented yet in New York. We have a lot of work in front of us. What I think is so important in education reform is not to become the CEO of a massive network that’s churning out numbers and having young people be data points. I want young people to be able to say, I was part of dramatically transforming New York City public schools and my school, but mostly the importance of me being able to say the name of a human being I am accountable to and whose life is fundamentally different and whose suffering has been reduced as a function of my work.

Sarah Camiscoli (42:00):

What would be my dream is that a young person who started when they were 16 is now 27, the age that I was when I started and that we have our entire organization - board, executive committee, directors - are run by the young people who have been fully developed and supported through our organization, and that we are now doing different projects. And we are watching them thrive and they are no longer accountable to us, but to the communities that they want to serve within this work. My vision is to be able to totally transition this organization over to a team of young adults who came through our organization as young people and are now shifting and taking on the work with their own approach and their own experiences and engaging young people that we maybe may not have thought about or seen or engaged with when we were starting this work.

Arianna Blanco (42:50):

School segregation is a systemic issue that is the result of decades of institutional discrimination. Persistent factors continue to drive segregation like housing discrimination, school district mapping, and school financing. And while desegregation and true integration may require a lot of structural changes, as we’ve just heard from Barbara Biasi and Sarah Camiscoli, there are a lot of existing tools to make it happen. Sarah said some powerful things at the end of our interview, reflecting on the larger view on what this work is about. Let’s listen.

Sarah Camiscoli (43:21):

How do we understand public schools as the source of democracy in our society? If we can’t get public schools correct and we can’t support young people to live in an integrated society, how are we going to move forward? So I think specifically about this one quote that [inaudible 00:43:40] said on an interview that he did once, which is, “If you want decisions in the future and our democracy to be equitable, just and fair, you need schools that are equitable, just, and fair.” And so what we really see as those three pieces of youth leadership is, how are we investing in the autonomy and shifting the experiences of young people and what they have to offer in this world in our organization? Because it’s not happening in schools. Secondly, how are we then utilizing that potency that we’re developing within them to support and design a framework for schools so that that real self-actualization and support is shared in the largest school system in the country? And then three, how then does that shift in public education become a springboard for really having an authentic democracy where the majority of our society, people of color or young people, not this specific group of white and or privileged folks get to make the decisions for the rest of society? How do we really shift who is making decisions and how they are making those decisions on behalf of communities?

Naomi Shachter (44:48):

Powerful stuff. I learned a lot today. Thanks, Arianna.

Arianna Blanco (44:52):

Yes, and we want to thank our guests, Barbara Biasi and Sarah Camiscoli. You can learn more about IntegrateNYC at So what’s coming up on Episode 5, Naomi?

Naomi Shachter (45:04):

Stay tuned for Uzma and Tessa’s interview with Eric Gordon from the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston. Eric has a new book out on civic engagement and the importance of play and meaningful inefficiencies in city planning.

Arianna Blanco (45:17):

Meaningful inefficiencies? Aren’t we all aiming to be more efficient not less?

Naomi Shachter (45:23):

Stay tuned to find out why inefficiency might sometimes be the better goal, next time on CitySCOPE podcast.

Arianna Blanco (45:29):

Until then.


Alexandra Sing:

This podcast was recorded in our homes on Zencastr.

Stephen Henriques:

Created by Kate Cooney and the students of the spring 2020 Inclusive Economic Development Lab class.

Marisa Berry:

All engineering and projection by Ryan McEvoy and Kate Cooney.

Joy Chen:

Special thanks to Rhona Ceppos for administration support and to [Giana Montez 00:39:57] for assistance with Zoom.

Charles Gress:

Music from the album Elm City Trees composed and performed by the artist K Dub. For more information and show notes, visit our website at

Arianna Blanco:

Thank you for listening.

Music (K.Dub):

Look, I’m from a city that’s half pretty and half gritty. Ain’t too many cities rocking with the Elm City. Home of the blazers. Those were the days. When I played, all these fast breaks. We don’t need plays. We play on Sundays like we don’t need praise. We pressing all game like we don’t breaks. Look, no debate. Best team in the state. We flow like the Lakers back in ‘88. I learned to play crazy eights in the city that raised the kid that want to big. Like I want to be big. I really hate the way rap’s portrayed. I want to the kids in the Elm to see a different way. Because way back I knew that I would get some pay. Every day in the mirror trying to get some waves. I ain’t trying to push weight. I want to own estates. Putting on the state on my license plate. Elm City. All I need is some Elm City trees. Avoided the trap, now you know where I be at. Everywhere I go, I rep that 203. Yeah, I love my city, but I had to leave. All I need is some Elm City trees. Avoided the trap, now you know where I be at. Everywhere I go, I rep that 203. Yeah, I love my city, but I had to leave.