Meet Qiana: “We have to look at the bigger picture”
It was 2pm on a balmy Friday in New Orleans, and Qiana Torregano was preparing to be interviewed by a local television station. She had already been on her feet for about six hours, sprinting from classroom to classroom at the school where she is a “master teacher” providing training, mentoring and support for other teachers.
Sitting in front of a television camera in the school cafeteria, she talked about a program she created to train students on the reading, writing and critical thinking skills they would need to pass important standardized tests.
“I provide a platform for students to research and write about issues that affect their communities,” Qiana said. “What better way to motivate a child to write than to get them to think about things that really affect them personally?”
The program, called Writers on the Rise, was inspired by her work as a RESULTS advocate and Expert on Poverty.
“RESULTS gave me the framework to broaden my advocacy work,” she said later, adding that she always tells her students (who attend the program voluntarily outside of school hours) about what it’s like to be an advocate.
“The kids say, ‘Wow, you go to Capitol Hill!’ I tell them about members of Congress, and how it’s their right to talk to them about issues affecting their lives. I tell the kids, ‘You can write a letter or make a phone call, but I get to go meet with them face-to-face because of this group called RESULTS!’ Just telling them about all this gets such a big reaction,” Qiana said. “I ask what is plaguing their community – if you had the opportunity to talk to someone with the power to change policy, change laws, what would you say?”
After the students do the research and decide what they want to write about, they compose letters that Qiana takes with her when she goes to meet with her members of Congress on Capitol Hill.
“The kids feel like they are doing something to protect their own lives,” she said.
She pointed out that at RESULTS, “we fight all year long to protect and defend programs like SNAP,” formerly known as food stamps.
“But people here, including many kids at this school, won’t find out about threats to these programs until SNAP is cut,” she said. And that’s why, as a former SNAP recipient herself, she’s so committed to raising her own voice, and supporting her students to do the same.
Qiana was born and raised in New Orleans, in an area called the 9th Ward. Her parents were educated and worked hard. It wasn’t until she was about 12 that she realized her family was living in poverty. Their situation became so serious that were periods of homelessness, house-hopping, and a general sense of instability. Education became her solace, and her high grades earned her a place in an elite summer program called Summerbridge, which she said changed her life. But her experience there also made her question why she had access to this special program when so many others didn’t.
“There’s an invisible thread that goes through the whole foundation of why poverty exists,” she said. “We have to look at the bigger picture.”
That is what Qiana endeavors to do every day as a teacher, advocate, poet, and mother of two. But the challenges can seem endless and overwhelming.
“Many schools in our city, including mine, are considered ‘low performing’ despite having really smart, curious kids,” she said. “Most of these kids live in impoverished neighborhoods, in areas that have not fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Families, educators, and students are working very hard. But it’s a struggle.”
And now, with a new administration and Congress in Washington, there are renewed threats to the anti-poverty programs that help many of her students and their families get by.
“It’s easy for students to lose hope and come to believe they deserve less in life. The entire educational system can be a barrier to success if not sufficiently supported by everyone involved,” Qiana said. “But I refuse to watch this next generation become prisoners of their own minds.”
While she has master’s degrees and a promising career, she still fears that one emergency could plunge her back into poverty. For Qiana – who refers to herself as a “child forgotten by the system” — being an advocate is about inspiring change and holding our elected leaders accountable.
“The people need to feel like they matter, that they can positively promote change and action,” she said. “That is the power of advocacy, and advocacy is a skill children should learn and practice early. I feel like I’m responding to a need, that this is what I was put here to do.”
This piece originally appeared in the 2016 RESULTS Annual Report.