Maximizing “Student Voice”

“Students are the most valuable and least consulted education-policy experts in America.”  ~Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World

Too often the mantra “Student Voice” falls on deaf ears. Certainly, the views by some students do get heard. Student representatives–elected by their high school peers–who serve on their School Boards tend to earn respect from their adult counterparts. A genuine collegiality can thrive. If student reps make waves, their influence on the Board can take a dive.

Only a few school boards in the country give student reps voting power. This advisory role further undermines real clout. Another criticism is the burden on one or two full-time high school students to represent the entire student population.

Is there a way to democratize the decision-making process that spans from school budgets, testing, discipline and other rules? Imagine if the primary stakeholders had the opportunity to weigh in on the critical decisions that affect them five days a week.

Surprise! Some school board members believe that students should join adults (many of whom went to school decades ago) in electing school board candidates rather than only their student rep. The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of extending voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds. This ballot measure, which included lowering the voting age for Mayor and the County Board of Supervisors, lost but not by a large margin. In neighboring Berkeley, the School Board members shared the same belief that education policymaking would be better informed with this expanded constituency. A whopping 70% of adult voters agreed and in the next election, all students age 16 and up will have this opportunity.

Do you think ‘Student Voices’ will have real meaning and influence if students also can vote? Yea or Nay?

2016 Election: Expanding Voting Rights to HS Students

You may have missed one decisive victory this election. Voters in Alameda County, California supported expanding voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds in Berkeley School Board elections by a huge 68.5% margin.

This is a significant step that gives actual meaning to “student voice”—the primary stakeholders—regarding school curriculum, policies and funding. Now every future candidate running for the Board of Education will be accountable to those in the classroom, not only the two “Student Directors.”

Here’s an informative and inspiring account by one of the activists behind this ballot question:

In my own high school, young people have led the way to create change, from protesting racial hate crimes to proposing new sexual harassment policy to the Berkeley School Board. My peers inspire me to include more young people into the political conversation.

The San Francisco School Board unanimously supported a similar ballot proposition as Berkeley that also would have lowered the voting age to 16 for other local elected officials, including candidates for SF Mayor and the County Board of Supervisors. This Charter Amendment lost by only 11,500 votes (pending final count by the Board of Elections).

When I phone banked for this proposal, a number of SF voters told me they were overwhelmed by all 25 ballot questions and didn’t have time to study the arguments pro and con. To listen to compelling testimony by dozens of students, here are highlights from the public hearing back in May.

Reactions about this close vote in SF soon…check out previous blog about the leading researcher on “teenage brain” who supports lowering the vote age.

Moving forward, Generation Citizen has launched “Beyond The Ballot 2016” along with a free toolkit.

Latest on Student Campaign for Restorative Justice

I continue to be educated and inspired by students who refuse to give up trying to stop the school to prison pipeline. Alexandria United Teens (AUT) has been collaborating for over 4 years with the Advancement Project, Critical Exposure, NAACP, Tenants and Workers United plus other advocacy organizations to demand funding for restorative practices in this northern Virginia district. So often school climate experts and superintendents dominate this debate but decision makers need to seek out students who have firsthand knowledge of what’s happening in the classrooms and hallways.

AUT students Brooke Wilson and Cynthia Boateng write in EBONY magazine:

Our school population is evenly divided among Latinos, African Americans and Whites. Yet students of color–students like us–are pushed out of school through suspensions and expulsions at disproportionately higher rates than our White counterparts, often for things as minor as taking a cookie off of a cafeteria table, or wearing what some deem provocative clothing.

These anecdotes are backed up with solid data in a comprehensive report that is highlighted by AUT students in an excellent 2-minute video titled Restorative Justice Now.

Specific proposals made repeatedly by AUT to the Superintendent and the Board of Education are outlined on page 13 of A Community Review of Alexandria City Public Schools Implementation of Restorative Justice, including:

  • train 20-30 students to become circle-keepers;
  • designate class periods when circles will be held;
  • train every classroom teacher on relationship-building and harm circles;
  • train every administrator on harm circles.

Salem Meskin of AUT and a T.C. Williams High School senior, whom I’ve watched testify before the School Board, expressed frustration: “The district has promised to implement a set of restorative practices, and to date and they have only marginally begun the work needed to make real change.” This explains why AUT issued a report card with an ‘F.’

Turning the tables where the primary stakeholders—students­—grade their schools and offer constructive solutions should be the norm in every school district. This is one key argument for extending voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds for School Board candidates. Such a city charter amendment will be on the November ballot in San Francisco and we should take notice that all seven SF Board of Education members voted unanimously to support youth suffrage.

Recruiting & Community Organizing Secrets by Young Activists

I had the terrific opportunity to moderate the inaugural Youth Ideas panel with the overarching theme of “Interrupting Injustice” at the International Arts & Ideas Festival. It seems only fair for me to pass along some key points shared by four local activists in New Haven, Connecticut. Click here for brief bios of these inspiring change agents.

  • “Just start…People are waiting for someone to take a stand.” Jeremy Cajigas, now 16, launched Eliminate Racial Profiling because “Fear is what caused me to make my voice heard. Trayvon Martin could have been me.” Jeremy cold-called the Mayor and got her and the Police Chief to come to a youth-organized summit. One outcome: students now are teaching cops how to interact with teens.
  • “Relationships are the foundation…Emotional community building is at the heart.” Isabel Bate, now 18, has been “co-leading” LBGTQ +Kickback for nearly three years. This youth-led organization really knows how to provide “a safe, inclusive space” which is captured in this video.
  • Youth organizing work is multi-faceted…“focusing on restorative justice which includes probation, mentoring, community service rather than the punitive system,” explains Montrel Morrison. He co-founded the annual NAACP Juvenile Justice Expo at Southern Connecticut State University and currently mentors and coaches young people.
  • “Personal outreach is what builds a movement rather than relying only on flyers and social media,” explains Carolina Bortolleto, co-founder of CT Students for a Dream. Sharing stories about being “undocumented and unafraid” gives courage to others and now immigrant youth–not only adults–are testifying and meeting with state legislators.
  • Invite and include individual youth by encouraging them to contribute their artistic talents like creating spoken word, chants or banners.
  • “The rising of a powerful generation,” Jeremy’s tag line, means adult allies need to listen more rather than always lead.

To draw further inspiration and ideas on community organizing, I recommend When We Fight We Win! Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World by Greg Jobin-Leeds and AgitArte.

Voting Rights Debate Gathering Momentum

The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously for the “Political Enfranchisement of 16 and 17-year-olds for Local Elections” Resolution.

It says a lot that these seven School Board members believe students should be able to vote them in or out of office. Even better, the Board is looking ahead to the November ballot that is expected to include a proposed charter amendment to lower the voting age for the SF School Board as well as City and County Board of Supervisors officials. On April 12, the Board also approved teaching high school students about the voting process and the significant political parties. The school district is also expected to offer voter registration drives at high schools at least once a year.

Jillian Wu, Vice Chair of the SF Youth Commission, told Board members that a recent survey of 5,000 students showed that 80 percent of youth would be willing to vote if given the opportunity. She testified that suffrage is important for all high school students, but “especially those who do not have family members or community members who vote or are able to vote.”

The students knew they had four votes in favor of the resolution but won over the other three Board members, no doubt helped by the standing room only crowd, compelling testimony and their powerpoint presentation.

Balboa High School Senior Shara Orquiza makes the case:

“San Francisco is our home too. We should have a say on what goes on in our communities. We’ve never been given an opportunity to take direct action on issues we care about until this initiative came around. Young people like me are experiencing a rapidly changing San Francisco and we deserve to have a say in the direction of our city.”

Orquiza says she was first inspired to participate more in the political process after taking an Ethnic Studies course at her high school.

Next step: May 3, 2016 SF Board of Supervisors will hold its first ever joint meeting with the Youth Commission about Vote16SF and other measures to boost turnout. Last November, only 45 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

For update, check out http://vote16sf.org/ as well as more information on the two cities outside of Washington, DC that have already lowered the voting age to 16 and national organizations that are actively supporting SF and other youth suffrage efforts.

Student Government Leaders: Intentional Inclusion Needed

Our appreciation to Teaching for Change for publicizing this speech.

Students at Mount Hebron High School in Howard County, Maryland walked out of school on Feb. 2 after a student video with a racist message was shared on social media.

Community members turned out to support the students, including Rev. Janelle Bruce, Esq., the Youth Pastor at St John Baptist Church. Bruce noted,

I fully support the students because I understand the magnitude of damage, sometimes irreparable, that unaddressed racism can cause – whether it be systemic or individual. Racism adversely effects the psyche of the students who are targeted and the entire learning process.

Most of the media could not hear the students’ speeches, therefore the students’ explanation of the walkout was missing or misrepresented in some of the local and national coverage. We share here the speech given during the walkout by one of the students. At her request, we are only using her first name. It was shared with us by organizers who are supporting the youth.

Note that this was just one of the presentations. Many students shared experiences of racism in the schools, making it clear that the walkout was about much more than the video.


#StopTheSilenceStartAConversation

Hello, my name is Lina and I’m a Junior here at this school. I would like to speak to you all about the lingering problems at Mount Hebron. As you all know, recently a student at Mount Hebron was live on camera saying obscenities towards the African American race. This video was reposted by many people on several different social media sites and highlights a problem that has crept in the shadows of Mount Hebron for many years.

We have not come to chastise this individual for the mistakes that he has made but rather our desire is to bring attention to the racial issues going on, not only in Mount Hebron, but our community as a whole. We believe punishing this student with suspension, or similar consequences, will not solve the problems of racial discrimination at the school, but will instead do more harm than good. By punishing the student, you will teach other students who share his views to hide their prejudices for fear of receiving similar consequences. Suspending the boy will not stop other students from sharing his views and the efforts made to alleviate the racial issues in our community will fail.

Many in the community saw the video and wanted the obvious response to be efforts to end racism in our schools and communities. Sadly, it is impossible to end racism. Racism is a problem that has persisted in not just schools, but all of American culture since the founding of the nation. What we wish to accomplish instead is establishing an environment of tolerance and understanding among all students so they can work together regardless of racial barriers or beliefs in order to accomplish change. The reason we are talking today is to demand several actions to solve these problems. First, we want teachers and staff throughout Howard County to take up a more adamant stance towards incidents of racism in the school. All too often racial microaggressions and bigger race issues alike have been ignored and the action that is generally taken is nothing short of appalling. For example, people have been making fun of my black features such as my natural big hair and lips. Another incident where I was personally attacked was when I was in class and a girl called me the N-word and mockingly told me that, “Black people are ugly when they come out the womb.” After I heard those words I immediately left the class and talked to administration. They offered me empty promises, claiming that they wouldn’t tolerate that behavior and telling me there would be a meeting to address the situation. Nothing was done at all, there was no meeting and the student was not punished for the derogatory terms thrown at me.

Sadly, my story is not unique. If you were to ask many of the other minority students in Mount Hebron, you will hear many stories similar to this. Action is not being taken to combat incidents of racism and discrimination, and instead the school system is allowing obscenities like the ones directed towards me to go unchecked and unheard. The recent incident with the individual posting his racist video is being treated the same way. After the video of this student was spread, the superintendent of Howard county contacted Howard County parents erroneously urging them to delete the video. While this was said under the guise that spreading the video would cause more hatred, and by removing it we would be sparing students from being subjected to his ignorance. In actuality, all this will do is erase the fact that the student ever spoke that way in the first place. As we all know, the only reason that this issue has gotten attention, the only reason why all of you are here even listening to this speech now, is because the video of this student has gotten enough attention on social media to expose the racist ideas held by some students. We will not delete these videos as a way to show that we as a school and community will not allow remarks like the one’s that have been made to be ignored, nor will we tolerate that kind of behavior.

Secondly we want the school to incorporate mandatory ethnic studies classes into the school curriculum. Ethnic studies classes are offered as an elective in Mount Hebron’s course selection, but there are too few students willing to sign up for these classes to actually make them last. These classes commonly end up being cancelled, showing how much Mount Hebron students as well as staff value learning about other cultures. Like most schools in the country, Mount Hebron’s curriculum is extremely eurocentric in how it teaches students about history and social science. Ethnic studies courses have been shown to help give students a better perspective as to how other cultures behave. It is strange that a school with half of the students being minorities takes no strong action to teach students about how people of different races, religions, and sexualities experience life. It is foolish to think that we could try to create a community full of understanding and tolerance for people of all backgrounds if we take no action to teach students about what those backgrounds consist of. History has shown that if we leave the students to decide for themselves whether they want to participate in these courses, that they will not do it. Mandatory ethnic studies classes are needed in Mount Hebron to promote the tolerance of others in our school.

The third and final change that we, as students, want are changes to the Student Government Association. The SGA recently had a meeting to address the issue of the students video, but they failed to include Quad A, Delta Scholars, and Alpha achievers; organizations built to uplift people of color. On SGA, only one member of it’s entire organization is African American. They chose to address an issue about someone attacking the black community without including African American organizations or other minority groups in their discussion. In order to truly create change in our community, we must unite as one, which means including those who are directly affected by situations. Commonly in society, we leave the planning of how to deal with one group’s problems up to people that cannot connect with the issue or our feelings.

We want to be allowed more participation from other groups and organizations on not just this issue facing us today, but the issues that will affect us in the future. This speech has been made to address the issues of racism that have plagued Mount Hebron for far too long. Some choose to defend the individual who was in the video, not because what he said was right, but because they want to preserve the good name of this affluent school. To me, this is a form of oppression because our own students and staff are choosing to ignore our biggest problems and silencing those who speak out against them, just to preserve our status. Exposing racism, admitting we have a problem, and actively taking steps to prevent those problems is not the sign of a “bad” school, but the sign of a school willing to learn from its mistakes and come to terms with its own faults. Hiding issues like this in the shadows and allowing racism, hate, and bigotry to persist in our school system would make us even worse than just a bad school. Those who care more about our communities image rather than solving the issues that plague it are the reason that problems like the ones we deal with now still persist. At the end of the day, our protest is not being done to become friends with those who defend what was said in this hateful video.

This protest is solely to demand respect for students of all races, religions, sexualties, and disabilities within the Mount Hebron community and all of Howard County. I would like to thank all who helped and supported us in making this possible and bringing attention to issues that need to be solved. All of you have been my inspiration to be courageous in the face of the many trying to stop me from coming out and standing against oppression. We want all of Mount Hebron to use this incident as a lesson of what we are now, and what we should be striving to be. We want these demands to be seen not as attacks, but as a conversation among our community that is long over do. Thank you for taking your time to come out and hear this.


Learn more about the Mount Hebron protest by following #HoCoStudentWalkout.

Find resources for Teaching #BlackLivesMatter.

12 Pointers Before Adults Collaborate With Youth

  1. Start with the question “How can we partner with young people?” instead of “Why should we partner with youth?”
  2. Please gently correct those who say “We want to use kids.” Suggest “We want collaborate with young people.” It’s altogether different from teens and older students to refer to one another as “kids.”
  3. Share true stories of young change agents to stir adult minds and convince them of the unique influence of the rising generation.
  4. Identify one specific issue that your organization or coalition is grappling with. Ask who believes young people are needed as co-architects to develop a blueprint.
  5. Stop if there is not buy-in from key colleagues to partner with youth!
  6. Rehearse do’s and don’ts on how adults should interact with young people.*
  7. Wait to begin developing a possible plan of action until youth are on board.
  8. Create an announcement explaining why youth partners are essential to this process.
  9. Compile a list of individuals of all ages to help search for half a dozen youth.
  10. Recruit several youth and encourage them to invite one of their friends.
  11. Decide all together on short-term goals, expectations, etc.
  12. Strive for lively action-oriented meetings rather than a formal business atmosphere that can stifle unconventional ideas.

This philosophy articulated by Margaret Mead captures an authentic intergenerational process, even better than her well-known quote “Never doubt that a small group…”

The young, free to act on their initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown. The children, the young, must ask the questions that we would never think to ask, but enough trust must be re-established so that elders will be permitted to work with them on the answers.

* Duct Tape & Third Ear are among the suggestions in Catalyst! Successful Strategies to Empower Young Advocates. Want this free e-toolkit? Just send your request to wendy@youthactivismproject.org.