Introverted Activism: How becoming a Math Literacy Worker Showed one Student the Importance of Her Voice

by | Oct 4, 2022

(Anna Njie)

Anna Njie never struggled much with the content of her classes. An accomplished cellist, she passed an Advanced Placement Calculus class with no teacher and no other classmates, and is now on the premed track at Vanderbilt. So, while she may seem an autodidact and star student, there remained an arena where she never felt fully comfortable, and that was socially. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person learning, her social anxiety truly came to a head.

“When everything went virtual, that was even more nerve-wracking. I couldn’t just raise my hand to speak. I had to go and unmute the mic and that was just a whole lot of anxiety for me.” she said, speaking about her first summer as a Math Literacy Worker with the Young People’s Project (YPP). “Going into that first summer of teaching YPP modules, I wasn’t really at the forefront, I would just kind of listen.”

Anna attended Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts in Clayton County, Georgia, throughout middle school and high school. She was introduced to the Young People’s Project at 16, after focusing primarily on music for her school career. Having never struggled with math, but also having no particular affection for it, she decided to become a Math Literacy Worker simply to try something different.

“I got introduced through a mass email the district sent out about a math teaching internship. And at this point, I was sick of music. So I was like, let me try this out. So yeah, I applied, we got trained, and that was my first introduction to it. But at that point I was like, I don’t know if this is for me because I was really shy and I didn’t like to speak up about anything.”

Math Literacy Workers (MLWs) are a peer-to-peer math initiative started by the Young People’s Project to train students with Algebra Project pedagogy who then get paid to do math with other students who may be struggling. By doing math alongside other students, there is a better rapport from the onset which is linked to overcoming mathphobia, and by paying MLWs for their time it instills a culture of valuing the labor of students.

“I did a lot of listening and learning that year about … teaching and being an MLW, and then during the next summer, I was more comfortable and I was like, ‘you know what? These people paid me to do this and I didn’t even do anything last time. So maybe I should actually participate and try and teach this time.’ It brought me out of my comfort zone and taught me that, a lot of times, what I have to say is important.”

From there she formed a relationship with the Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP) and began joining the National Math Literacy Corps (NMLC) meetings they host. The Tuesday night NMLC meetings hosted and run by youth but with an adult mentor, Jay Gillen, featured youth from across the country.

“I was one of two people joining from Atlanta. Most people were from Baltimore, and they had experience with the organizing side of things and, like, bringing people together for a common cause and whatnot.” Conversation soon turned to the possibility of a town hall.

They began with a mock town hall in Tacoma, just the size of a classroom, but it was a big stepping stone for Anna. “I was kind of leading it, which I hadn’t done before.”

From there, they moved on to the real, and much larger, town hall, “It was on July 12th, during the Free Minds, Free People Conference. It was pretty successful. Not only did I relay the same message that I presented at Tacoma, but it was to a whole different audience. And these were math people and people that support youth doing things, and support the idea of math literacy being a set goal for everyone, something that should happen.”

Jay reached out to let her know of an opportunity with the emerging We the People – Math Literacy for All Alliance, and the Algebra Project, which were collaborating on a national conference for July 2022. Organizers felt youth representatives were critical for the planning of the conference. Not only did he recommend that she be part of the organizing committee, he suggested that she and fellow Math Literacy Corps member Jamarria Hall host the opening plenary session. But Anna was still a little hesitant in groups, and especially in groups of strangers.

“Jay mentioned that there was a working group starting to plan this conference. And he said that if I was interested in joining a meeting, I could, and I was a little intimidated because being in a room of people that I don’t know is still scary to me.” Anna did attend a planning meeting, but quickly decided it wasn’t for her.

Jay, however, was persistent. “(By the end of the school year) Jay was talking to me and he kind of puts these ideas in my head that he knows I’ll agree with. I just need to hear someone else say it. And so he was saying that they need youth voice on the working group team and kind of encouraging me to be a recurring member on those calls. So I agreed. And I was telling him about my needing a job for the summer to save for college, and he was like, ‘well, why don’t we try and get you paid for this?’” Anna was funded with support from the Center for Innovation in STEM Education Research (CiSTEMer) at Kennesaw State and BAP.

Anna and Jamarria became paid student voices on the planning call and worked together to present the opening plenary session of the conference. Their session was the most well-attended presentation out of the over 40 groups presenting. You can watch all of the conference recordings, including Anna and Jamarria’s, here.

Patience in teaching her new things, allowing her to acclimate at her own speed, and being paid for her time and labor all contributed to Anna becoming the organizer she is today. And she hopes to help other young people get the same resources she did as she heads off to college.

“I’m going to study Medicine, Health and Society, I’m on the premed track. But I’m also opening up myself to teaching professionally. And I really do hope to, you know, still be involved in the Math Literacy Corp, and even the things that are happening in my school district. Because I think that’s what made me put myself out there to apply to schools I wouldn’t think I’d get into. And so I don’t wanna leave them behind. I want that to be something that I grow with and not grow away from.”

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