Reflections on 4 1/2 years with OregonASK

I first joined OregonASK as a My Brother’s Keeper VISTA in November of 2016. My own educational journey had inspired me to get into this work. I had been an uninterested and unengaged student for much of my youth, but had somehow managed to make it through community college, and then graduate from a 4-year university. I had a newfound passion for education and a curiosity about how the world operated, and I wanted to help spark that curiosity for kids like myself at a much younger age. Afterschool seemed like the perfect place to do it.

As part of a partnership with the Office of Equity and Human Rights at the City of Portland, I spent my VISTA year working half time with the Black Male Achievement Initiative, and half my time with OregonASK. It was during this VISTA year that I first became intrigued with the question of access – who had access to all of these opportunities that afterschool offered, and what prevented certain kids from fully participating? I began visiting several afterschool programs in the Portland Metro area, observing them in action and having conversations with site coordinators about this question of access, specifically in relation to the kids they aimed to serve. I learned about some of the challenges that these kids faced, but I also learned of their resiliency, their persistence in wanting to fully participate in afterschool programs, sometimes commuting long distances just to be able to take part in the fun activities and hang out with their friends.

After my VISTA year ended, I stayed on with OregonASK full time and got the opportunity to further explore this question of access. What had begun as a series of informal conversations with people in the local area, turned into a large-scale research project where we traveled the state and heard from parents, families, and kids on the barriers preventing them from fully participating in programs. What struck me most about these conversations was how similar they were in the themes we heard, regardless of which part of the state we were in. We heard over and over again that people wanted the academic support that would set them up for success in school, they wanted the chance to participate in new experiences and build meaningful relationships with the kids and staff in programs. And yet we also learned that far too many are priced out of these experiences, or that there are just not enough spots to go around for everyone who wants to participate. And still, others encountered wider institutional barriers – trouble accessing programs due to language barriers, complicated enrollment and outreach processes, and straight up racist and hostile environments.

We published our findings in our State of Access and Equity report in January of 2020 and since then have been using our role as the state network to address some of these issues. Whether that’s highlighting the need for more of these programs with funders and key decisionmakers, or developing tools and resources to help programs create more inclusive and equitable environments, OregonASK is committed to ensuring that all kids have full access to the life changing opportunities that afterschool offers.

As my time with OregonASK comes to an end, I feel good about the work we’ve done, and yet acknowledge that there is still so much to do. I know the team here at OregonASK will continue on, as they always have, with this important work and look forward to the day when afterschool is available for every young person in Oregon who wants to participate. I’d like to thank all of our amazing partners and everyone I’ve gotten to know and work with over the last 4 ½ years, especially my co-workers here at OregonASK. I’ve learned so much from working closely with all of you and am grateful to have been part of this team. I know all of the lessons learned during my time here will serve me well as I continue on my journey.

All my best,
Juan Soto