Focused on civic engagement

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J.R. Richardson dropped out of high school in 2016. At the end of 2017, he was speaking at the Oklahoma Capitol. 

“I dropped out of school and I didn’t have a lot of things going for me. I didn’t feel like I was capable of much. I had been working throughout the year, and even this summer, and I was really sad about the spot where I was at,” Richardson said. “Then I decided to come to Dimensions Academy. None of this would have happened if I never came here.”

Dimensions Academy Director Paul Tryggestad knew he wanted to interview Richardson for the program from the first time they met during one of the academy’s regular application days.

Students must go through an application process to attend Dimensions, an alternative school that annually offers 70 high school students in the Norman Public Schools district an opportunity to earn their diplomas. 

“Dimensions is offering an engaging, rigorous academic experience. We believe in our students and all the opportunities out there for them,” Tryggestad said. “It is our job to connect them to those possibilities for the future, like Generation Citizen, so students like J.R. can find their passion.”

Richardson said his perspective on life began to change after he dropped out of school and went to a military academy.

There, he gained a lot of self-discipline and realized his intellectual potential after taking part in a brain bowl event in New Mexico.

“Growing up in the public schools, I always thought I was just average,” Richardson said. “I never relied on my brain; I just relied on physical things. I always excelled in sports, but never paid much attention in school.”

After leaving the military academy, he felt like he didn’t have much going for him. He worked to help his mom pay the bills, but he worried about leaving a legacy, and he wanted to make a difference.

After he had been accepted to Dimensions, one of the teachers introduced the students to Generation Citizen. The goal of the nonprofit is to encourage students to engage in active civic participation.

“It is about taking action in your local community and realizing how valuable your voice is,” Richardson said.

Richardson’s team focused on lack of communication between law enforcement and residents.

He and 11 of his peers were put on a team and began researching and brainstorming solutions.

“Right off the bat, I wanted to be involved as much as I could,” Richardson said.

Their group met with the Xenia Institute for Social Justice, as well as Norman Police Chief Keith Humphrey, and talked with him about his experience with law enforcement and discrimination.

Richardson said many of his peers have a hard time viewing police officers as people just like them. On the other side of that, most are scared when they interact with police.

“When they get pulled over for speeding, we don’t want them to be sitting there with their heart beating out of their chest. We want them to feel comfortable and safe,” Richardson said.

The group decided it wanted to create an event giving community members and police the opportunity to come together. The event aims to include activities, a keynote speaker and focus on 21st century policing. 

The working name of the event was Fuzz Fair.

“It is a low-stress environment for what can be a high-stress topic. It is a place where people can bring up their concerns with police, and if you get to know your local police, it would help eliminate the problem of lack of communication,” Richardson said. “The people I am trying to target the most would be the people who would least want to be there.”

The Dimensions Academy group submitted its project. Then the group was selected to present at the Capitol. 

Richardson said the group never decided he would be the spokesperson, but the role naturally fell to him when they began working. So when five of them went to the Capitol, it was decided he would be the one to speak.

“I was nervous.” Richardson said. “Everyone was looking at me and I thought, ‘Jeez, that is a lot of people.’ I started speaking and I could hear my voice ringing throughout the building. My legs were shaking.”

Richardson has tremors, so he is almost never completely still, but the tremors get worse when he is nervous. Even while his legs shook behind the podium, his voice didn’t.

“I wanted to get my message across. I’d been waiting for an opportunity to share my thoughts, because I wanted people to hear them,” Richardson said.

At the end of his speech, he received a standing ovation and the Change Maker Award for his work and leadership on the student project for Generation Citizen. 

“The whole group came back changed,” Tryggestad said. “They came and talked in my office, they were all so excited. They won an award called Collaboration and Diversity.”

Richardson said he and other Dimensions students want to make the Fuzz Fair a reality. He plans to graduate from Dimensions Academy in May and after that, he’ll experience another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

In December, Richardson learned he was one of 24 high school students from across the country selected for the Citizen University’s 2018 Youth Power Program. Through the program, he will take several all-expenses paid trips to meet with civic and political leaders across the country and learn more about civic engagement and leadership.

“Honestly, it is a great opportunity,” Richardson said.

He credits the opportunity, as well his experience with Generation Citizen, to Dimensions Academy.

“People think it is a school where bad kids go, but I’ve met some of the best individuals I’ve ever met here, and I’ve had some of the best teachers I’ve ever had here. Dimensions is just a school for people who learn differently,” Richardson said. “I just want them to know we are as good and the students here are as valuable as the students at Norman North and Norman High.”

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