“At the time I moved away to attend Washington University in St. Louis, it wasn’t the experience that all of my friends were having,” said Colette Owens, Executive Director at Hiawatha Academies. Being from a majority working-class neighborhood and growing up in a multi-racial household in Canton, Ohio, Owens, like many people in her community, had been told repeatedly from a young age that to “become something” meant leaving her family and community behind.
In her college years, Owens found a language to describe how she had always felt navigating the world. Throughout her K-12 education, Colette saw the harmful effects of low expectations and messages that success meant “getting out.” So she did just that: moved away. But when she got to Washington University in St. Louis, she felt wildly underprepared for the rigors of college, both academically and culturally where she was challenged to navigate a space that was not reflective of who she was or where she was from.
“College was a time that gave me a frame and a language to things
that I had felt and seen.”
She often found that educators assumed/identified her as a white person and was given space, opportunity, and access to navigate those educational spaces. “This gave me access to a ton of privilege for how I move through the world, privileges many other people of color do not experience.”
Given these experiences in school, Owens has dedicated her career to building educational spaces that address this big question: How do we ensure a system built on a commitment to equity and justice for all students alike instead of one that perpetuates systemic racism?
According to NECS data, Minnesota ranks 50th in graduation rates for Latinx and African-American students. Tackling this opportunity gap drives Hiawatha Academies’ mission and vision. With Owens’ leadership, Hiawatha is addressing these issues through a robust equity-based academic strategy and support services. Graduating children from high school is one hurdle. Another challenge begins when scholars start their young adulthood in college; Hiawatha aims to address the gap in support to make the transition to college realistic, easier and more equitable. As Hiawatha Academies’ first graduating class embarks on their college careers, Owens draws from her own experience in ensuring that every single student and alum has the resources, support, sense of home at Hiawatha, and belief in self to graduate from college and serve the common good.