Rev. Melissa interviewed Dr. Sonia Toledo, Founder & CEO of Dignity of Children® (March 21st, 2021).
Rev. Melissa: I love your description of IDEAS, particularly that it helps develop passion early and teaches to live from the heart. Tell me about your own journey of living from the heart.
Sonia: I am very mindful of how my childhood and my life experiences have affected me and made me into who I am at today. I see many of young people these days struggling with academic performance because it is so rigidly standardized. They are being told “You have to learn this” and “You have to know that” without explaining the reasons behind this knowledge. What we're missing in our current education system is the WHY. Children and youth are wondering “Why do I need to learn this information?”. IDEAS Empowered by Youth® modules are designed to create an environment where kids are connected to the purpose of learning and are driving their own education, which means they can make decisions on what to focus on and are taught how to structure their learning based on their own interests and talents. All modules are designed to develop 21st-century skills and help youth make a connection between these skills and their future success in college, in the workplace and in life. When you feel that there's a purpose in what you do, you are motivated to learn and do it well.
Rev. Melissa: Can you provide an example?
Sonia: Let’s look at the world we are living in today. Young people are influenced by everything that’s happening right now, but we aren’t discussing it with them. We don’t really understand, for example what they think about the pandemic, the riots or the issue of racism; how they feel about their hair and their skin color, their last name, where they live; what traumas they’ve experienced and what they mean to them. I designed IDEAS with the vision of using challenges and struggles to help youth discover their passions. I think we must have deep meaningful conversations with our children to help them understand what matters to them and through that help them heal their trauma.
Rev. Melissa: That’s profound. Can you please elaborate on how to turn trauma into discovering your passion?
Sonia: I usually share my own experience when I’m asked this question. I'm a twin. As adults my sister Elizabeth Toledo and I are both fabulous, powerhouse women working in youth development, organizational development, and community service, but growing up I was far from feeling fabulous and empowered. We grew up in a household with seven siblings that was filled with chaos and toxic relationship tendencies. I felt alone, not seen or heard. I remember one particular incident. We received the letter from my grandmother from the Dominican Republic that we had all been waiting for. I was so excited and impatient to read it that right away I started opening it up in front of my mother saying “Here’s momma, here’s the letter”, but she smashed it out of my hands and said “You can’t read, let your sister read it”. I think I was in the second or third grade at the time, and that was the moment when I began feeling that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t smart enough. My grades were constantly compared to my sister’s who was one of those advanced students performing three grades ahead of her. And I was the opposite, I was three grades below. And I had to live with that. Fast forward, in college I was diagnosed with a learning disability, which basically meant that I learned differently, and that my needs weren’t addressed in the traditional educational system I had been a part of. I see things differently, I write things differently. I know this now and when I train large groups of people and misspell words on the white boards, I just laugh at myself because I have to. I’ve accepted who I am and I focus on my strengths and don’t allow my weaknesses to bring me down anymore. I have so much brilliance inside of me that I don't have time to worry about how to spell a word.
What I am trying to say is that through my experience, I have learned that when I'm in an environment that speaks to my brilliance, I am present and I shine. On the other hand, when I'm in an environment that puts me down and criticizes who I am and what I do, I shut down. I realized that we need to create learning environments that help tap into our children's brilliance regardless of their shortcomings. That’s why I developed IDEAS. I want to help young people develop their strengths and help them thrive, so they do what they are meant to do in their lives and realize their full potential. I am almost certain that I wouldn’t have come to these realizations and chosen this career path if I didn’t go through my own childhood trauma.
Rev. Melissa: What a powerful story. And was the catalyst for IDEAS?
Sonia: I have two sons myself who are now brilliant young men in their early thirties. I learned a lot from my experience of raising them by myself and facing lack of opportunities in education in inner-city communities. I've also been working in the afterschool field for the past 30 years implementing programs to help create more productive learning environments for children and youth to develop critical thinking, creativity, problem solving etc. All to keep them engaged in the learning process and essentially help them thrive. So I think my main catalyst for IDEAS has been my life journey. I watched my kids continuously evolving, observing the world around them, assessing the environment, paying attention to what was going on, to what was working and what wasn’t working for them. Through the process of raising my children and working with youth in the afterschool field, I learned that children have an outstanding capacity to learn if we give them an opportunity to express themselves and create an environment that helps develop their talents instead of pointing out their flaws to them.
Creating project-based learning program like IDEAS has been my dream for years now and began to transform into a more precise vision about three years ago. I had a grant from the Department of Youth and Community Development in New York City to serve young sharks, an entrepreneurship program for middle school and high school teams of young people. During this program participants worked on creating a business idea to solve a particular world issue. The fun part was having them sit in front of a panel of business people, investors, and community leaders, asking questions about their work. I was amazed at the kind of questions that young people were asking. I began to wonder why we didn’t ask youth some hard questions and give them the chance to find solutions. So, with IDEAS I took this process one step further. We developed a program that allows young people pick the issue they care about, do their own research and come up with a solution in a team. Right now we have five modules – Climate Change, Health & Wellness, Entrepreneurship, and Financial Wellness for 4-12 Grades and Spiffy’s Corner for K-3. Young people dive deep into the problems that matter to them while developing critical reasoning skills and job-readiness skills preparing high school students to succeed in post-secondary education and in the workplace. I believe that children are brilliant that’s why I designed IDEAS to help them express their brilliance.
Rev. Melissa: I would love to hear a few words about children learning in this environment. My girls go to a very small, independent school. It feels like a family, and they get a lot of attention. I keep thinking about children who are in the public school system with hundreds and sometimes thousands of students, which means that they are not getting this kind of attention. And now it’s even worse, many of them are at home facing a screen all day long. I wonder how all this is impacting them. How are you working with schools and youth organizations to support children in this type of environment?
Sonia: First I want to address the pandemic learning loss. You've touched on something very powerful here. Melissa. Many young people in public schools in inner-city communities are now in front of computers all day completely disengaged from education. Some studies have been done measuring pandemic learning loss among students in low-income communities and comparing it to their peers in more affluent communities, and it is predicted that those who entered the pandemic with fewer academic opportunities will exit it with a significantly higher learning loss. So, the pandemic is increasing inequality in education as we speak. Children in low-income communities are predicted to lose 6 to 12 months’ worth of learning capacity by the end of the pandemic. IDEAS modules are designed to help young people overcome the learning loss that has already taken place and prevent further stagnation in education. The program is administered via a user-friendly online platform and can be facilitated as a hybrid model or a 100% online. Our focus is on the facilitator, the teacher and the youth worker. I believe that we need to teach differently, to change our approach to learning. IDEAS modules support facilitators in that process by teaching them how to create engaging learning environments that allow students to express themselves while developing important 21-century skills.
Rev. Melissa: Yes, that sounds like exactly what our education system needs.
Sonia: Yes, I am convinced that’s what we need. Here’s my message to educators out there: Give young people opportunity to express themselves creatively, to ask questions, to conduct research, and figure out the answers to their questions and see how they transform into powerful, emotionally healthy, independent young adults. Try IDEAS, come back and tell me how amazing this experience was. We have piloted IDEAS for two years with over 2000 young people and we are getting overwhelmingly positive feedback. Facilitators are saying they wished they had such opportunities when they themselves were in school.
Rev Melissa: Beautiful! I love hearing this and I do believe teachers should bring IDEAS to their classrooms. I hope more schools all over the country and the world incorporate IDEAS into their programs. Before we get into my joy question, can you tell us how folks in the educational space can get in touch with you?
Sonia: Our website is www.dignityofchildren.com. You can also find us on all social media channels via the handle @ideasbyyouth. Our curriculums are designed for schools and youth organizations, teachers and youth professionals, and, of course, parents and caregivers who homeschool their children. IDEAS will give children the opportunity to compete in the IDEAS by Youth Symposium where they will meet mentors and sponsors who will help them take their ideas to the next level.
Rev Melissa: Great, thank you very much! So, my last question for you is “What does Joy look like for you right now?”
Sonia: Being able to live the life of passion, fulfill my purpose and actually see results in the work I do with young people in education.
Rev Melissa: We are blessed that you are here with us, that you recognize that children are amazing and that they are the future.
Sonia: Yes, It's not only for them, it's also for us. It’s our future!
Rev. Melissa is interfaith minister, affirmative prayer practitioner, and purpose coach with MA in spiritual psychology. She helps people learn how to design their life from within & experience more joy.