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Only a few years ago, Jose Perez and Julian Spencer ran into trouble with the law. Their schools, they say, offered them little help or guidance. There were few mentors and not much support.

Now as young adults, they're working to change that for current students, particularly those of color.

Perez, 24, and Spencer, 20, this year launched Good Trouble, a pending nonprofit that aims to help students meet developmental needs in the classroom. The name comes from the late congressman John Lewis, who recommended getting into "good trouble, necessary trouble" to make things right.

Their main focus, they say, is improving Minnesota's education system so that historically disadvantaged young people can be more successful. Education, they say, is "the civil rights issue of our time."

For more than a year, Perez and Spencer have worked alongside other youth on a report looking at the state of education. They hosted more than 75 conversations and held public meetings with hundreds of young people and education and justice system stakeholders.

Their report found that most schools don't provide ways for youth facing adversity to develop a healthy sense of purpose, independence and community. Support is especially lacking in middle school years, which they call a crucial time.

The report says that while Minnesota schools are working on offering alternatives to incarceration, more needs to be done to prevent troubled young people from entering the justice system in the first place. Spencer said they believe that the education system is too focused on benchmarks like test scores and grades.

"There's a lot more skills in our young people than just how good they do on standardized tests," he said.

They also believe Minnesota's teacher workforce needs to be more diverse. Growing up, Perez and Spencer said they didn't see many teachers who reflected their community. In addition, most teachers are women, and many young men need strong male role models, they said.

According to the most recent available data, nearly 40% of Minnesota students are people of color, but only about 6% of public school teachers are.

The son of immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador, Perez grew up on St. Paul's East Side. He graduated from high school but found himself falling back into old social circles and bad habits; when he was pulled over and found to be distributing THC, the psychoactive substance in cannabis, he was jailed for two days.

"You can only get more angry when you're in there, you can only get more isolated, you can only get more traumatized," he said.

After Perez was released without charges, he took political science classes at St. Paul College and started to get involved in policy work. He took charge of Bridgemakers, a nonprofit focused on youth empowerment, and met Spencer, then a high school student participating in Bridgemakers programming.

Spencer, who is from north Minneapolis, was twice expelled from his middle school and arrested for assault after a school yard game went wrong. He turned to the streets, where he said he found companionship and a sense of belonging, selling drugs and hanging out with other lawbreakers.

He spent time in juvenile detention, feeling like he was "pushed out of my community," Spencer said. But when he became a father at age 16, everything changed, he said. He realized he wasn't living the life that he wanted, went back to school and eventually graduated from an alternative high school.

"I really do think that's life for a lot of young people growing up on the North Side of Minneapolis … living in survival mode with those generational cycles of trauma," Spencer said.

Good Trouble has gained the attention of justice system officials in the Twin Cities. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi wrote a letter last year supporting the group's recommendations for changes in the state's education system.

This February, the group hosted a panel discussion on youth justice with Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarity and Liz Ryan, who oversees the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

While Good Trouble is youth-led, it works alongside adults who have connections to the education system. Theresa Neal, co-chair of Good Trouble's board of directors, worked in St. Paul schools for more than 40 years, most recently as principal at Como Park High School. She said much can be learned from the experiences that Perez and Spencer had in school.

"We can recognize what was missing in their experience, so that what they encountered is something that can be eventually dismantled," she said.

One morning in April, Perez, Spencer and other youth involved in Good Trouble joined dozens of others at the State Capitol for a literacy rally. Afterward, they met with legislators to talk about bills they were passionate about.

"We want education to invest in our young people, like we've been invested within our communities," Spencer said. "And that's how we want education to reflect our society."

About the partnership

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan's stories in your inbox.