2020 - NEW JERSEY (NORTHERN NJ REGION)
Darlene Folas is a senior at West Orange High School in West Orange, New Jersey. In 2019, she created an organization called WOKE (Where Our Kids Empower). WOKE creates conducive spaces for students to navigate individual, interpersonal and institutional solutions to social problems while building a community around political activism. To accomplish this goal, Darlene focused on civic engagement, mental health, and honest dialogues — critical components of empowerment that were regularly neglected in her school. Civic engagement permits students to find their voice in politics; mental health ensures that students have their basic needs met; and honest dialogues allow students to build a coalition through solidarity. Throughout the year Darlene created spaces during lunch periods for students to decompress with free snacks, movie nights, and journaling sessions. She used her position as the Board of Education student liaison to create a channel between the students' concerns and local decision-making. And she led several workshop series, including "You(th) In Politics" and "Un-Learning Racism," to spark conversations that were not encouraged in classrooms, advance racial equity, and promote understanding by intentionally placing students outside of their comfort zones. WOKE quickly became a space where students could discuss topics like racial microaggressions and take actions like collaborating with the Board of Education's Diversity, Access, and Equity Committee. Darlene was inspired to create WOKE after graduating as a Talented Tenth Scholar from the W.E.B. DuBois Scholars Institute at Princeton University and completing a social justice-based fellowship with the Sadie Nash Leadership Project. These experiences allowed her to network with organizations like Peace First and build crucial leadership skills. Darlene plans to use her collegiate education to improve WOKE and expand her impact through advocacy.