Most high school valedictorians head to their next academic destination full of confidence that they can handle anything that comes their way. Candi CdeBaca’s experience was considerably more humbling.

After CdeBaca finished at the top of her class at Manual High School in 2004, she moved to Southern California for college—and quickly discovered that she needed to take remedial courses just to catch up with her peers. That’s when she began to fully appreciate how different her life had been from the typical University of San Diego student. “[College] opened my eyes to things I didn’t know existed,” she says. “I used to look down on people who couldn’t ‘get out’ of their situation, but I began to realize that there are structures in our society that are designed to keep people from getting out of their situations. They are exactly where the system wants them to be. I started to realize that I got really lucky to be able to leave.”

Simply growing up in the Whittier neighborhood around Manual presented CdeBaca with challenges that, as a teen, she didn’t know were so unusual. During her sophomore year, Manual was split into three schools under one roof, each with a different academic focus. This separated CdeBaca from her sister, a problem because the two of them had been using their shared lunch hour every day to check on their grandmother. CdeBaca transferred into her sister’s school so they could resume the ritual, but it was her first taste of how little regard the school’s administration—and Denver Public Schools—had for the effect of its actions on students.

These academic adjustments, however, were far from the worst things happening in Whittier. “Every year I knew someone who was killed, or was homeless,” she says. “We were dealing with all these things and there was no way to really know why.” Once she landed at USD—where her classmates at the private school mostly hailed from affluent areas that were reminiscent of Cherry Creek or Wash Park—she began to see herself and her experiences in revealing ways. “What I didn’t know in high school was that I was already an adult,” she says. “In college I was around people who never had to do anything for themselves—laundry, shopping, nothing. I realized I had a completely different life and was capable of handling so much more than my college peers. I was on a completely different page; I knew what I was there for and what I had to get done.”

In 2006, its reforms having failed, Manual High School closed. By then, CdeBaca had left USD and returned to Denver to finish her bachelor’s degree and begin work on her master’s in social work, policy, and advocacy at the University of Denver. “[Manual’s closing] struck a chord because it was another situation in which kids and their families weren’t involved, just like what had happened to us,” she says. She started attending school board meetings in her old neighborhood and was introduced to Brian Barhaugh. The commercial contractor had been recruited by a friend to teach area kids construction skills. Working with them “got inside me and took the blinders off,” Barhaugh says. “I met all these young people with great dreams, skills, intelligence, and senses of humor.” With the Great Recession looming, he shuttered his construction company and shifted his focus to working with these kids.

Barhaugh and CdeBaca quickly bonded. “Brian asked me questions no one else would [about the plight of kids in areas like Whittier], and he asked me what I wanted to do about it,” she says. The answer was Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education). The two co-founded the organization in 2006 with Brooke Brown and Julissa Torrez and immediately set about finding ways to empower teens in depressed communities. They recruited kids who were “fired up” about all the changes that DPS had imposed upon them without bothering to ask for their input, and the group attended school board meetings and other relevant gatherings, trying to figure out ways to be heard.

“We’re always pushing the idea that adults should try to be better listeners with young people, because they’re really good at solving their own problems if anyone will stop and ask,” Barhaugh says. “For questions like, ‘What would make you more engaged in school?’ or ‘What can you do to build respect?’ they know the answers.”

By the late-aughts, CdeBaca had become an experienced advocate—she relocated to Washington, DC in 2009 to work for a succession of educational policy groups before returning to Denver this year—and her mission has always followed principles of equality and justice for all. “In high school, we didn’t know what was constraining us, but we all had that feeling that something was keeping us here,” she says. “There was always this invisible thing preventing you from reaching your potential every day. No one should’ve waited until college to show me the knowledge and opportunity that was available to me.”

“It’s a culture of deficits that we, the dominant culture, have created,” Barhaugh says. “These young people see so many challenges they start to think something’s wrong with them. They don’t see their assets. When you’re called an at-risk or disadvantaged youth, it builds up a mentality that’s reinforced by dropout rates and a host of other things. What we’ve tried to do is create a culture of assets.”

One morning this past August, teens and adults gather in the Manual gym. Around large, round tables they munch breakfast burritos and sip coffee, waiting for the onstage presentation to start, but it begins in the crowd. One by one, the students stand on chairs and confidently proclaim an intention, poetry slam style, of how they will succeed. One young man, Paris Jones, assures the listeners, “Within five years my face is gonna be everywhere!”

The fundraiser’s goal is to build awareness not just about Project VOYCE, but about the deeply ingrained inequities in our culture and our educational system; inequities that falsely convince less fortunate kids that they’ll always be stuck—and that somehow it’s their own fault. And while PV’s mission remains the same, it’s constantly tweaking and upgrading its programs based on feedback from its own adolescent staff and the teens they recruit. This includes teaching them ways to build self-confidence and leadership skills, which they then try to bring into their classrooms and schools, with varying results: Some teachers and principals get it, but many don’t.

Barhaugh tells the story of a math teacher at Bruce Randolph School who was working with two paid teacher coaches on a lesson plan, but they couldn’t figure out anything that would work. The teacher decided to take the rather unusual step of telling her class that she was flummoxed about how best to teach this particular lesson. “One of the kids who’d been through our training spoke up, and within 45 minutes the kids had helped the teacher come up with two approaches that everyone understood,” Barhaugh says. “That teacher said that the best thing she’d learned in 18 years of work was the value of getting feedback from her students. That’s the kind of thing you can take to legislators and policymakers.”

And that’s what PV does. Its current and most ambitious goal is to reduce the voting age in school board elections to 16, which the group will advocate for at the statehouse in 2016. (PV’s past lobbying efforts have included support for SB 191 and Amendment 66.) “Considering last legislative session, I’m not optimistic this time, but I am optimistic about engaging more kids and adults who have been apathetic,” CdeBaca says. “School board elections have the lowest voter turnout rates. If you don’t lower the voting age for them, it tells young people that we don’t care about low voter turnout, and that adults don’t care about the impact they’re having on these kids’ lives. This is a way to renew young people’s faith in our democracy, so we’ll keep bringing the proposal back.”

Both Barhaugh and CdeBaca acknowledge that getting support and funding for a youth-run organization can be “hard to sell.” But nine years in, PV can promote some pretty convincing numbers: Barhaugh says that its most recent audit, several years ago, showed that about 90 percent of the program’s graduates went on to finish high school, and 85 percent attended college. In this area, graduation rates are typically closer to 50 percent. (PV plans to update the audit in 2016.) “It’s difficult to get people to believe that young people have the capacity to take on serious institutional challenges like education reform and start up and run a nonprofit organization in a challenging environment,” Barhaugh says. “For us to have survived this long is a transformative, amazing thing.”

As they gear up for their next fight, CdeBaca remains confident that PV can help more teens develop the capacity and confidence to undertake a journey like her own. “Our entire organization is comprised of persons of color, most of them first-generation high school graduates or the first in their family to attend college, so the context we’re trying to fit into has never really been ready for us,” she says. “But that’s even more of a reason we should continue to push forward. Every day we try to convince people of our value and give them that mirror that reflects their own brilliance back onto them.”

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

(Read about other local individuals and organizations making a difference in the 5280 Guide to Altruism)