Students participating in the Social Justice Learning Institute program. ⁣
Students participating in the Social Justice Learning Institute program. ⁣ Credit: Social Justice Learning InstituteSocial Justice Learning Institute

Making a real difference in the lives of young people and their communities is at the heart of the Social Justice Learning Institute’s mission. Since its inception in 2008, SJLI has been unwavering in its commitment to social justice and equity. Fast forward to 2018, and SJLI expanded its reach to Houston, bringing its vital programs to students and underserved communities.

At the helm of SJLI-Houston is a dedicated team that includes regional director Kimberly Upchurch and Jarett Fields, SJLI’s educational equity programs director. Together, they’ve been instrumental in driving SJLI’s impactful initiatives forward.

Upchurch’s journey to her role as regional director at SJLI-Houston is marked by her deep commitment to serving marginalized communities. With more than two decades of experience working for a local nonprofit dedicated to homeless youth, she brings knowledge and empathy to her current role. A Houston native, Upchurch intimately understands the challenges and opportunities within the community. Her work shows her passion for advancing equity in education, healthcare and justice for youth and communities of color.

Fields leads one of the institute’s flagship programs—the Urban Scholars initiative. With nearly 15 years of experience in education, Fields has served as a middle school assistant principal, overseeing math, science and reading courses.

The Urban Scholars program takes center stage in SJLI-Houston’s mission. Its primary aim is to ensure that youth of color graduate high school and acquire the essential life skills and support needed to pursue higher education, vocational training or gainful employment with a living wage.

Recognizing the pressing need to uplift Black and Brown alumni in education, careers and finances, SJLI introduced the Higher Pathways program. Extensive research underscores the critical connection between education, economic prospects, and wealth creation. Higher Pathways enhances SJLI’s services for opportunity youth aged 18-25.

The program provides comprehensive support, including college access, retention assistance, workforce development, career pathing, employment aid and barrier removal. It encompasses two primary tracks: College Pathway Success and Career Pathway Development, with another component—Pathways Supportive Services. The Educational Attainment track covers essential aspects like college preparation, financial aid workshops and family college planning.

The Defender spoke with Upchurch and Fields to learn more about the organization and their two education equity programs.

 Kimberly Upchurch, regional director [far left], and Jarett Fields [second to left], leading the charge as the educational equity programs director for SJLI. Credit: Social Justice Learning Institute

Defender: How have your backgrounds and experiences influenced your approach to addressing Black and Brown youth’s unique challenges in education and career opportunities ?

Upchurch : I’m a native Houstonian. I grew up in the Texas education system. I have two girls who’ve grown up in the education system and it has been challenging sometimes. It is hard to find equitable education opportunities for my own child[ren]. I’ve always worked in youth services and always tried to connect young people to higher education opportunities or to be gainfully employed. I worked at the Covenant House Texas organization for 21 years. We were a homeless shelter for young people. We did transitional housing and workforce development, as well.

Fields : It’s the same type of factors that we see in so many other cities; in Chicago, Milwaukee, and all these different places. Violence, food instability, economic shortages are [prevalent]. That helped me to begin to see why so many of the families that were in our schools were struggling economically. For parents, it’s not because they don’t know how to pick a school. All these parents are empowered What we needed was an education system and programs that helped them begin to think through how we fight for something that we don’t see the injustice in all the time. For me, it was leaning into education, seeing that there is a national problem, and Houston is tight-knit enough to begin to push for change.

Defender: Could you explain the significance of engaging youth in college-level research during high school and how this impacts their future educational and career paths ?

Fields : For the students we serve, the need for more information is [a challenge]. Many of our students are first-generation students. If you don’t have a household model or people close to you who can talk to you about college and how to navigate the process, this is where Urban Scholars and our staff come in. We help them throughout this process and introduce them to the resources they need to make the best academic decisions. This is a year-long conversation. It’s okay to dream. You can go to college, and money shouldn’t be a barrier. We have staff specifically dedicated to that. As for Higher Pathways, nationwide six-year graduation rates are extremely low. Now, people are seeing that a lot of kids are applying to college, but so many of them are not graduating. That creates a problem because of the difficulty in getting back into school after you’ve taken loans and all sorts of barriers. How do we take a student from sixth grade all the way through college, understanding that the Social Justice Learning Institute has supported them for that long? We hope to ensure that our students are graduating and finding licensure or certification programs where they can sustain a family.

Students participate in a college tour to Texas Southern University. Credit: Social Justice Learning Institute

Defender: How does this program work ?

Fields : First, I want to start with our funder, the Houston Health Department and the Houston City Council. They have been amazingly supportive in terms of helping us expand the work we do. This year, we are in seven schools. We work with a teacher or wraparound service specialist to identify a class of students, and that class of students will be served by our program curriculum coach, who works with the teacher and is in the class every week. They will meet one-on-one throughout the course of a year to get to know those students and help them with college applications and scholarships. Throughout the year, they learn about African-American history, different cultures, how to choose a career and colleges, and then do a big research project to prepare them for upper-grade level and college research.

Defender: How do you get parents actively involved in this process ?

Upchurch : Jarrett has been able to begin to hone in on explaining to the parents what we do. We have to get to the meat and bones of what we do. They appreciate it once the parents realize why we are there and the length of our commitment. They know that we are an extension of the village. That has to be repeated throughout the school year, giving them opportunities to connect with us. At the end of the year, parents get to come and see all the work their kids are doing.

Fields : We have a bilingual staff. Many students we serve speak Spanish. We make sure our staff speaks Spanish to communicate with students and families.

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...