From an early age, Emma Jones became an advocate for herself while navigating Albuquerque Public Schools as a homeless student. Her experiences growing up led her to 13 years of community organizing to improve school engagement and identify problems in New Mexico’s education landscape.

Jones, 32, is the lead organizer for Learning Alliance New Mexico, an organization that seeks to ensure that children from New Mexico’s diverse communities receive an education that prepares them for their post-high school career. She was the lead organizer of the Southwest Organizing Project and is a member of the steering committee at Transform Education NM.

Last September, a coalition of teachers, advocates, lawsuit plaintiffs, tribal leaders and organizers met to outline what is required to satisfy the Yazzie and Martinez v. State of New Mexico ruling, which found that the state’s education system is failing many vulnerable populations, to such a degree that it is in violation of New Mexico’s Constitution.

Jones, who was a participant in the meeting, spoke recently with Searchlight New Mexico about what it was like for her growing up and attending school in Albuquerque, and how the ruling will affect the state’s flawed education system.

Searchlight: You were born and raised in the South Valley?

Emma Jones: Yeah, I was born and raised here in Albuquerque. My mother was a drug addict and my dad worked two jobs, so I was always alone. That’s why family engagement is important to me. Because I understand it’s not always accessible to everybody and there are stigmas that come from families and make it really challenging and difficult. Even though I had those circumstances, at least my family wasn’t undocumented; they spoke English. My dad was always working and my mom, quite frankly, wasn’t around.

Searchlight: What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Jones: When I was in high school I was homeless. We lost our house. We were living out of the trunk of our car and staying at whoever’s house we could stay at. It was really difficult because at the same time I had to be an advocate for myself. There were teachers that identified that there was a problem, but they didn’t know me or my history enough to know what was going on.

Searchlight: What did the school think was the problem?

Jones: Somebody thought I had depression. They didn’t know what was going on. The school intervened and I was assigned a social worker, but they had no clue I was homeless. I was pretty lucky because I was able to have those wraparound services.

Searchlight: How did that help?

Jones: There was a school-based health center at Albuquerque High and I was able to have access to health care services there, including getting on birth control. I was also in a program called the Albuquerque Public Schools Drop Back In Mentorship Program. I dropped out and I was able to get back into school through this program. I was paired with a mentor and they helped me reach further services. The mentor was somebody who knew how to navigate APS, knew how to navigate college. I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t even know if I was going to graduate, much less go to college.

Searchlight: How did you get to college?

Jones: When I graduated from Freedom High School I had seven scholarships. I applied to nine and got seven, including the Daniels Fund Scholarship. It was because of my mentor and [these services] that I was able to figure it out. In my mind I was more concerned with where was I going to eat or sleep.

Searchlight: What resources do housing-insecure children need from schools?

Jones: I think there is a lot that schools can do. From making sure that young people are paired with social workers to giving families access to food services, resources for housing or school-based health centers.

I had access to mental behavioral health and physical health care that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Those were things that were really important for me. I was really lucky that I got a social worker.

Searchlight: Do you think the ruling in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit goes far enough?

Jones: Depending on how you interpret it, it could go far enough. We just have to be diligent and ready to put the resources and things we have to offer to be readily available for students. That was one of the biggest parts during the legislative session that I found so frustrating – the constant conversation around the money.

We need to not rely on oil and gas revenues; we cannot do that full time. We need an adequate tax base to make sure, regardless of what comes in during that year, that we will always have the resources that we need for school. We can’t keep using [lack of money] as an excuse.

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