My name is Paula Ortega. I am eighteen years old, a performer, teaching artist, a college student, a daughter, a sister and company apprentice with Rising Youth Theatre.

In partnership with the ACLU of Arizona’s Demand to Learn campaign, Rising Youth Theatre created The 100th Day, an original theatre production. This collaboration highlights the injustice and discrimination within Arizona’s education system and allows audience members to learn through young people’s eyes. Please join us at the show next week

Here’s why this production is particularly meaningful to me: I was almost sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline without being aware of it, just like many other young people from my community. When I was in middle school, I was battling depression. I was falling behind in school, disengaging and not caring about my education. My mom saw what was happening and asked for help from my school. I only got to see a counselor once, and they didn’t listen to my mom or to me about my problems. I was promoted from middle school, but I don’t know how—I had not passed any of my classes.

By the time I got to high school, I was extremely behind in my education. I kept getting kicked out of class and being referred for discipline. But I got lucky. They didn't kick me out of school completely. Instead, my principal would meet with me to talk about the issue that caused me to get kicked out of class, to talk to me about my life. My teachers also saw something in me and helped me understand that I can be more in life.

Then, in the middle of my freshman year, I started working with Rising Youth Theatre through a collaboration the company did with my school. I started to do performances and realized I am a leader. I started to see my true potential and learned that my voice is heard, cared about, and what I say and think matters to my peers and my community. I felt powerful and ready for a bigger role, and now I am a teaching artist at the high school from which I graduated and a Rising Youth Theatre company apprentice, learning the administrative side of our organization.

I became an activist. Through this process of finding out that I was cared about and that I also care about other people, I started to feel powerful and found my voice. Now, I want to help amplify the voices of my peers who feel they don't have one yet or don’t know their rights. I want to help them find it and teach them that they deserve more. I cannot be the only student who did not (or does not) understand the relationship between unsupportive education environments and the criminal justice system. I want to make sure every student understands that they should receive help, not punishment. I want to make sure they are not treated like criminals for misbehaving because we all make mistakes, especially when we’re young and in school. They call it getting educated for a reason!

By speaking our truth, we help shape the world around us. We are standing up for ourselves and other youth. People with power want to decide our future from test scores, but we are here to tell them that we are more than that. I am glad I am part of this work. I am gaining knowledge every day to help and educate my community. I am ready to tell the stories of our youth in our community. I am ready for people to open their eyes. We are all affected by this and we are all in this together.

Created over the course of ten months of research and conversation with students and their educators, parents, and administrators, The 100th Day examines why young people are pushed or kept out of school in Maricopa County and invites audiences to take part in a conversation about finding solutions to this problem. The play takes place on the 100th day of school, a date that is important in the formula for determining how much money Arizona schools get from the state, and examines the ways some young people are prevented from accessing a quality education. Tickets are free and can be reserved here.