Ladder To Leadership

Erica Ayala’s first experience at a CDF Freedom Schools® training was “overwhelming in the greatest way possible.” She had never seen “that many young people; and of color, working together in such an uplifting way.”

Erica, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban ancestry, grew up in New Rochelle, New York. Her mother was a family lawyer; her father a postal worker. She had just completed her sophomore year at Elon University in North Carolina, where she majored in political science.

The highlight of the training for her was a documentary on the Children’s March in Birmingham. “It was a movement led by young people. I didn’t know that history, and I was very empowered by it. They changed the country. I was learning as a Latina that there were things that needed to be changed, and I started to think differently about everything. I was looking for the right organization to help me figure out what kind of leader I wanted to be, and Freedom Schools came along at just the right time.”

This summer was Erica’s eighth involved in Freedom Schools. In her first year as a teacher or servant leader intern at Freedom Schools, she worked with children age seven to nine. “They are so inquisitive and also exploring their own opinions. I find the greatest part of youth leadership development is when you talk to a young person and they realize something about themselves they didn’t realize before—that they have an opinion or skill that matters to the conversation.”

Erica became an administrator at Freedom Schools sites in New York and Virginia. By then, she was out of college, working first for the National Action Network in New York and then as trainer and community outreach coordinator for Buffalo Wild Wings, which she says has a great adult training model. She also became an Ella Baker Trainer for Freedom Schools, where she helped develop a more interactive curriculum about the stages of child development for the servant leadership training.

This year is Erica’s fifth as a leader in the Young Advocate Leadership Training program. YALT, she said, “opened my eyes to all the possibilities within the realm of child advocacy.” She participated in the rally in Minnesota on October 10, 2010 created by Minnesota YALT leaders and joined by YALT leaders from other states. At the rally, held just before the gubernatorial election, “We presented ten things we wanted the candidates and the state to focus on to help children and youth. It was the closest thing to a children’s march we were able to experience.”

This summer, Erica was hired to oversee youth development in CDF’s New York office. She intends to connect all the young people selected for the Beat the Odds scholarship to CDF’s Freedom Schools and YALT leaders. “We want to tie them in to CDF’s policy work and link them to each other so they can be part of the movement for children.” Erica is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree at New York University Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.