Model high school social justice program cut short

Based in Jacksonville, Florida, the EVAC movement spoke out about issues of police brutality, gang labeling, and systemic racism. (Photo illustration by Michele Abercrombie/News21, photo courtesy of Amy Donofrio)

Photo illustration by Michele Abercrombie

Nick Shubert stood in front of a Harvard lecture hall this spring. The room was dead silent as he shared his story. They were listening to him. 

“They understood where I was coming from and my pain and my passion for making things right,” Shubert, 22, said. 

He had traveled to Massachusetts from Florida with a few peers and a teacher, as part of a group called the EVAC Movement, which started in Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee High School five years earlier. They were invited to come to Harvard to talk about the power and danger of youth storytelling, and the start, success, and eventual demise of their student-led social justice initiative. 

“It changed how I look at people,” Shubert said. “It changed how I look at life. It just changed everything. That was the best experience I have ever had, probably, in my life.” 

The EVAC movement, coordinated by teacher Amy Donofrio, morphed from a lesson Donofrio would teach in her co-ed leadership class about using personal storytelling to escape the “cave” of their life, or whatever is holding them back.

In 2015, Donofrio was asked to teach a male-only leadership class for predominately black students. They reversed the word cave, and dubbed it EVAC. 

Of the 13 high schoolers in the group, 12 had an immediate family member in jail, seven had been arrested, nine had been shot at, 11 had seen someone get shot, and 12 had a close family member murdered. 

“EVAC is about getting an understanding of each individual,” said Bernard Thomas III, an EVAC member and current junior at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. “Without understanding, you cannot go as a community. You cannot go as one. You can never be united without understanding.” 

Thomas and Shubert said the class was atrocious at first. Some of the boys didn’t know each other. Others outright hated each other. Donofrio cried a lot, and day in and day out her lesson plans failed to strike a chord. 

A few months in, they decided to go back to where they started, sharing their stories. Donofrio, a white woman, learned from hearing the stories of the young black men. 

Shubert, Thomas, and the others started to share their negative experiences with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and how they felt labeled as a criminal and gang member because of their skin color and hair style. EVAC started to sell hoodies that said, “I am not a gang member.” 

What started as a leadership class quickly became a movement, the former high school students said. 

They hosted roundtables with local leaders including the Jacksonville mayor, Jacksonville sheriff, and Florida state attorney to discuss issues important to them. 

Local and national news outlets started picking up their stories. Within a year they had met with President Barack Obama, New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker and civil-rights legend and Georgia Rep. John Lewis. 

“It all happened so fast,” said Thomas. 

The New York Times featured one of its members on the front page in a story about juvenile fines and fees. The White House invited them to participate in a roundtable on juvenile justice. They won Harvard’s national KIND Schools challenge. They traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, to present to teachers on how to implement the program in their schools in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting. 

But in May 2017, as most of the boys were about to enter their senior year, Donofrio found out that the EVAC class would no longer be on her schedule. 

Robert E. Lee’s principal told Donofrio she would have to use her planning period to teach the class, but she was already staying at school until late at night every day. She declined. The class was canceled. 

She fought for a month to keep the class. She looked for a funder. She met with the mayor. Donofrio was encouraged by the principal to continue doing EVAC lessons in her speech classes, but the program that gained national attention for telling their story would no longer meet during the regular school day. 

After teaching EVAC lessons in her speech classes for a couple years, Donofrio found out she would be reassigned to teach British literature in spring 2019. That summer, Vinceté Waugh, an EVAC member, said he arrived at Donofrio’s classroom to see all of EVAC’s posters and photos dismantled.

“The journey of our journey was there,” said Waugh, a rising senior at the time. “And then to see it all crumpled up, thrown into trash bags and thrown on top of eachother, it just made me feel like, wow, no one understood.” 

The Duval County Public Schools was not available for comment.

Waugh, emancipated from his family, says without EVAC he lacked the support he needed in his final year of high school. He started the year with a promising outlook to get into Florida State University, but he ended the year without meeting the minimum admissions requirements. 

“It didn’t turn out to be the year that it was supposed to be,” said Waugh.

But, this May he became the first in his family to ever graduate high school and has begun attending community college as a first generation student. 

The other EVAC members have all since graduated and now find other ways to speak out. One founding member, Reginald Boston Jr., was shot and killed by a police officer in January. The boys and Donofrio have leaned on each other for support and demanded answers. 

They recently have taken to the streets in protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. They will publish an essay about the story of EVAC and the power and dangers of youth storytelling in the Harvard Educational Review this summer. Donofrio says they still talk weekly, and she talks to many of them every day. She said Shubert, Thomas, Waugh and the other EVAC members are like family.

“We’re going to fight until our very last breath for the ones that are struggling,” said Shubert. 

Lead photo courtesy of Amy Donofrio

Patrick Linehan is a senior studying newspaper and online journalism and policy studies at Syracuse University. Originally from Derry, New Hampshire, he covered Pete Buttigieg’s New Hampshire presidential capaign for the South Bend Tribune in Indiana. While studying in Morocco, he produced a multimedia package on LGBTQ+ activists and their fight for greater personal freedom. A podcast series he helped produce in 2019, “Syracuse Side Hustles,” won top prize at the national Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Awards. An interactive graphic he reported and designed about life on the Canadian border, “Up the River,” won top prize for interactives from the Associated College Press. He is a staff writer for the Daily Orange in Syracuse, New York.

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