When Haley, Kate and Sarah* began eighth grade at Westminster School in the fall of 2017, the term “living wage” wasn’t in their vocabulary. They didn’t know how poverty and homelessness affected their community. They never dreamed by the time they entered high school this fall, they would be leading a city-wide initiative to increase minimum wage and the opportunities afforded those living in poverty.
Westminster launched its community service initiative two years ago, with each grade studying a different societal issue. The 44 students in the 2017-2018 eighth grade class were assigned poverty. They learned from community organizations combating homelessness, studied poverty in their classes through novels, poetry and research and participated in a “poverty simulation” in which they struggled with issues like finding childcare and paying for groceries.
“This isn’t to make them feel bad for being privileged but rather to understand real-life problems,” said Emmery Frejo, Westminster director of communications. “They have learned to empathize with others and think critically about the role they play in society.”
The students were perhaps most affected by a presentation by Ranya Forgotson of the Homeless Alliance’s Curbside Chronicle, a magazine employing individuals transitioning out of homelessness, who explained that to be “housing stable,” or afford housing, an individual would need to make at least $12 an hour, compared to Oklahoma’s current $7.25 minimum wage.
“It’s not possible for people who make minimum wage to change anything about their life,” said Haley. “They can’t afford housing because of costs. It’s an endless cycle.”
Sarah was shocked to learn the most common person experiencing homelessness is a single white mother. Kate realized that a single mother working full-time for minimum wage would fall below the poverty line, unable to support herself and her children. Haley educated her own family, who’d also never heard of a living wage, about why it’s important to her—and should be to them—to increase minimum wage in Oklahoma City.
Inspired by their research, the eighth graders were the first class to turn their learning experience into action. They developed Wage Up OKC, an initiative to increase minimum wage, and partnered with Curbside Chronicle to launch a Mother’s Day floral sale.
“The beautiful thing is they are pioneering it,” said Frejo.
Realizing how raising minimum wage could directly impact those living in poverty, students conducted research surveys and designed a logo, collateral and advertisements for Wage Up OKC. Students began making presentations to metro businesses in May and already have a handful of partners.
“Our partners agree for four years to continue to [or start to] pay $12 an hour to all full-time employees,” said Sarah. “That doesn’t include bonuses or extras.”
Although the students have graduated Westminster, which ends in eighth grade, and will be continuing on to high schools around the metro this fall, they’re committed to the initiative for the next four years. Their goal is to partner with 208 businesses, one per week, until their high school graduation.
Forgotson has spoken to student groups across the metro but says she’s never seen a program like Westminster’s where students are combating poverty and she hopes it serves as an inspiration.
“Young people can learn about complex topics and how to address them,” said Forgotson. “It ultimately lessens a need for programs like mine to exist in the future.”
When Forgotson initially spoke to Westminster students about Curbside Chronicle, she mentioned the organization’s dream to expand its successful yearly Valentine’s Day floral sales to Mother’s Day, providing additional employment opportunities to their vendors transitioning out of homelessness.
“The students said, ‘how can we make that possible?’” said Forgotson. “They conducted a business survey, covered some of the costs, produced a radio commercial, advertised on social media, selected flowers to use and participated with vendors in the floral workshops.”
Inaugural Mother’s Day floral sales nearly matched Valentine’s Day, employing 39 vendors.
“Our goal was to sell 750 bouquets, and we nearly doubled it,” said Forgotson. “We are so thankful the students gave us this opportunity. They should be really proud.”
When Haley, Kate, Sarah and their classmates began their eighth grade year studying poverty, they doubted their ability to make a difference. In addition to directly impacting individuals battling homelessness and the metro business community, they’ve also changed the course of their own futures.
“In the beginning, we thought we were just going to donate money somewhere,” said Sarah. “But when we realized what a big problem poverty is in Oklahoma City, we realized we could do something about it long term. We have the chance to make a change.”
At the time of this printing, Wage Up OKC had 32 business partners. To learn more about Wage Up OKC, or become a business partner, visit www.wageupokc.org.
*To protect the privacy of the students, Westminster’s policy allows us to print first names only of students.