PUTTING PASSION INTO ACTION
These youth-led initiatives reveal that young people can be very influential with their peers, younger peers, parents, the press, the private sector, politicians and other policymakers. Some of these examples are ongoing campaigns; others occurred in the past. Please share your story with us so we can share with others by contacting us online.
Our national clearinghouse is in the process of gathering information about student-led efforts to stop the school-to-prison pipeline and advocate for restorative justice not only in their own school but district-wide. Voices of Youth for Chicago Education (VOYCE) is highlighted below under EDUCATION.
Tied to punitive school discipline policies that demonstrate discriminatory practices and other educational inequities, the Youth Activism Project applauds efforts by courageous students who are advocating to lower the voting age. The San Francisco Youth Commission, comprised of city residents between the ages of 12-23, have led the effort that continues to gain momentum to extend voting rights of 16-year-olds for the SF School Board as well as Mayor and Board of Supervisors. More details at http://youthactivismproject.org/2015/06/09/vote-at-16-join-the-debate/
ANIMALS & THE ENVIRONMENT
- At age 15, Kelsey Juilana became one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit demanding the State of Oregon reduce carbon emissions and climate warming. She says “we have a lot of corruption and money that influences our legislators” and this legal strategy now has moved to the U.S. Supreme Court. To learn more about the Public Trust Doctrine: ourchildrenstrust.org/youth-engagement
- Laurie Wolff was upset that her 8th grade classmates who refused to do animal dissection were getting failing grades. She collected signatures on a petition and then testified before the Las Vegas School Board, urging that students be given the option to do virtual dissections. One of the largest school districts in the country responded to this 12-year-old student’s call and adopted this policy.
- Student volunteers joined efforts led by a Maryland animal shelter that would require pet stores to disclose if the dogs for sale were bred in puppy mills. Individual letters to elected officials resulted in the passage of this local city ordinance.
- Earth Guardians continue to organize support to ban fracking in Colorado using many strategies including art activism, demonstrating and testifying before key decision makers. Outspoken Xiuhtezcatl Martinez , 13, gave an emotional and information-packed presentation to the Boulder County Commission.
- As an 8th grader, Alec jumped into action after some of his friends thought Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was a lie. He did some research and started making presentations about climate change. He established iMatter Youth Movement and one of the projects is the Sea Level Awareness Project (SLAP) where Alec and others dig deep holes and install tall poles — especially along the coast — to get people to visualize these areas will be underwater if sea levels continue to rise. His campaign landed him meetings with Senator Barbara Boxer and the former Vice President.
- San Francisco voted to limit the sale of plastic water bottles on city-owned property and one high school student made a crucial difference. In the words of the community organizer: “I showed up in SF to launch a campaign to encourage both the city and its local national parks to go bottled water-free. Knowing nobody, my first step was to recruit a team of volunteers. Standing outside the local co-op with a petition and campaign materials, a high school girl, whom I’ll call Abby, approached. I talked with her about the environmental harms of bottled water, and she told me that she was passionate about protecting the environment and wanted to get involved. So I invited her to our first campaign meeting. She hadn’t ever done any grassroots organizing before, but jumped right into our campaign–and was brilliant! She learned how to recruit and train volunteers and became the overall coordinator for our “grassroots pressure” tactic. In just 3 months, Abby played a key role in recruiting almost 50 people to a campaign kickoff meeting, generated over 1,000 handwritten petitions, and created more than 220 photo petitions (including with a dinosaur made of plastic water bottles that demonstrated how bottled water should be extinct!). She recruited many of her high school classmates and together they made a huge impact. One year later, we reached a tremendous victory and that success wouldn’t have been possible without Abby’s incredible work.”
- Pelican Island Elementary School students in Florida made dozens of presentations to the School Board, the Indian River County Commission, their U.S. Representative, and the Secretary of the U.S. Interior Department to protect the habitat of the scrub jay, an endangered species. Ultimately, the Eco-Troop received a matching grant of more than $200,000 from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to purchase undeveloped lots from private landowners for this wildlife sanctuary.
- Students at West Branch Middle School in Iowa save the school nearly $250 a month on electricity by using energy-saving T8 light bulbs. Their effort to cut electrical usage in all schools was initially met with resistance by the local school board. The student proposal called for a low-interest loan to pay for more efficient bulbs and changing the light sockets. After four months of persistent lobbying by students, the cautious school board members approved the plan.
- The Beachwood High School Ecology Club’s investigation of the curbside recycling programs concluded that none of the 4,872 tons of residential trash in their Cleveland suburb was actually recycled. The findings were first disclosed in the school newspaper by Stephanie Bleyer, 16, who wrote, “Ladies and gentlemen of the city government, in the future when you sign an ambiguous contract [with Global Waste, Inc.] and advertise false city programs, give the whole true story or else student journalists like myself will.” This evidence caused the mayor and others responsible to overhaul the city’s solid waste reduction program.
BIKES, BUSES, CARS & TRAFFIC
- A youth-led coalition scored a big win getting a Student T Pass for Boston mass transit. Three years resulted in a major research report that documented the need for affordable transportation that’s available at http://youthwayonthembta.org/downloads Advocates grabbed the attention of state officials wearing superheroes like “Mobili-T” and “Affordabili-T.” Youth organizer Sakona Fitts says this 8-year-old campaign shows “the power of youth” in this victory video: youtube.com/watch?v=sjrKfE-4NR8
- Because of bad air quality, school recess in Salt Lake City often was canceled. Some students decided to investigate the cause of the smog and found that car emissions contributed to the problem. These young activists met with their state representative who helped them draft an anti-idling proposal. The students testified at the state legislature and this legislation was passed that required signs at schools, airports and other hot spots telling drivers to turn off their engines after 15 seconds if they are not moving.
- A group of 8th graders noticed that their classmates had to walk in the grass on the side of the road. They took the issue to their state senator and he told them it was a county issue; their senator helped arrange a meeting with the local Planning Commission in Florida. It looked promising that money to build sidewalks could come from Safe Routes to School grant program. But other projects sidelined this one. The students collected over 500 signatures on a petition to pressure the County Commission. Four years later, these students attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for this $700,000 construction project that grew into a multipurpose pedestrian/bike path.
- Bronx Helpers wrote a petition for a four-way stop in their NYC neighborhood and collected more than 1,000 signatures. These youth won support from Community Board 4 and persuaded the city transportation agency to conduct a traffic study but their proposal for a stop sign was rejected. Bronx Helpers kept up the pressure which resulted in the agency designating their community as a “slow zone” marked with blue signs and lowers the speed limit to 20 mph. Deomar, 12, said: “I feel happy and proud. We just kept trying and trying. We sent letters and made calls. We didn’t give up.”
- A high school junior in Olympia, Washington was on a car trip with her sister and thought: “If you’re 16 and you’re driving, you are taking on the risk of a car crash. So why can’t you be an organ donor?” She found out that organ donors must be at least 18 years old and proposed amending the law to allow anyone over 15 to have an organ donor designation on their driver’s license, provided they have the consent of their parent or guardian. The Governor heard about her idea, held a press conference with this young activist, and as a result, the law was amended to increase the number of people who can be potential organ donors.
- The Hampton Youth Commission in Virginia, comprised of 20 individuals between 14 to 18 years of age voted to recommend that bicyclists should be allowed to ride on sidewalks. The City Council approved the youth proposal serious consideration and amended the local ordinance. For more updates: altinc.org.
- The Dreamers are getting younger as immigration reform legislation seems less likely to pass the U.S. Congress. Watch Brian, 13, from Arizona who participated in civil disobedience protests in Washington, DC demanding an end to deportation that separates families. A common reaction is “these kids are being used by adults” but Brian and the other young activists arrested are not puppets if you watch this video.
- HS football player Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown started NERDS which stands for Native Education Raising Dedicated Students. In addition to a peer to peer support group, this 15-year-old recently called on Congress to demand an end to school and professional team and mascot names like the Washington Redskins: youtube.com/watch?v=RHRUror8E7Y#t=1053 …
- Girls for Gender Equity undertook a comprehensive assessment regarding sexual harassment in NYC public schools. After a thorough training in participatory action research, teens devised questions, conducted a survey and analyzed the results. They found that 1 in 4 students experiences sexual harassment daily and acts of violence ranged from verbal (71%) to physical (63%) to sexual assault (10%). They publicized their findings and met with school officials, proposing and then publishing their recommendations in Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets.
- Tommy McManus, Project RACE Teens President, doesn’t think it is right for students to check only one box for race. Just one month into the new school year, he convinced the dean of admissions at his NJ high school to change the application form to allow multiracial students to identify all parts of their heritage. Tommy shared a sample of the recommended wording: “If you are multiracial, you may select two or more boxes”. Project RACE activists want this option on all forms, including school enrollment, school tests, medical forms, hospital admissions, clinical trials and government documents.
- Middle and high school members of School Girls Unite, a global initiative of the Youth Activism Project, learned about Canadian youth who were pushing for an international day to promote gender equality and human rights for girls everywhere. Their mobilization efforts helped persuade the U.S. government to co-sponsor the the resolution that was approved by the U.N. General Assembly designating October 11th as the International Day of the Girl Child. This girl-driven movement believes “We want ourselves, and girls everywhere, to be seen as equals, in the eyes of others and in our own eyes.” DayOfTheGirl.org
- Seventeen-year-old Susan Sparrow of Salt Lake City mobilized a group of 20 peers at her high school to lobby state legislators expressing outrage that women in Utah earn only 66 cents for every dollar a man makes. On one of many visits to the Statehouse during their three-month campaign, they passed out cookies, some large and others 34% smaller, with messages such as “Aren’t we worth it? Vote yes on HB 81.” The result was passage of a new law called the Compensation Pay Study that will collect payment data by gender — an important step in addressing pay inequity.
- Compelling testimony by young people based on their personal experiences of discrimination convinced wary Massachusetts legislators to pass the landmark Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law. Students, with the support of the Lieutenant Governor, spoke at hearings, met with individual lawmakers, organized a massive letter-writing campaign, and held rallies and candlelight vigils that raised public support for a law that aims to “provide all students with a safe and supportive public education.”
- High school students in Arizona were outraged that their state voted to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a non-holiday. The so-called Scottsdale Six came up with the idea that there should be a bronze plaque at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. where Rev. King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963. They launched a fundraising effort called “Pennies for a Monumental Difference.” The students pestered the National Park Service, presented numerous plans, and eventually became members of the design team for the mini-museum now in the basement of the monument below the familiar statue of Lincoln that commemorates Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. (A referendum passed in 1992 making Dr. King’s birthday a legal holiday in Arizona.)
- The Multnomah Youth Commission in Portland analyzed the coverage of youth in the region’s largest daily newspaper, The Oregonian and found that few articles about youth were printed and those articles that were printed were about crime or sports. The MYC began working with newspaper staff to improve youth coverage and suggested the paper hire a youth beat reporter to specifically cover youth issues and create a weekly feature on youth. Both recommendations were adopted and “The Zone” was created as a weekly feature.
DRUGS & ALCOHOL
- Seventh graders in Dallas, Texas documented the number of liquor stores in their neighborhood, especially near schools. They traveled to the state legislature to present their findings. Senator West, a strong supporter, declared “The children motivated me. I’m going to do all I can to help get the bill passed.” The state law was changed to allow the local zoning board to reduce the number of alcohol outlets.
- A student in Pojoaque, New Mexico didn’t like beer billboards near her school. She contacted the state Office of Vital Statistics and other agencies to find out how many deaths in her county were alcohol-related, what percentage of those deaths involved underage drivers, and how much the town was spending on drug education. Then she argued that the $11,000 spent for drug prevention was a waste and convinced the town to ban alcohol billboards near schools.
- High school students elected by their peers to represent youth in New Haven, Connecticut serve on the Board of Young Adult Police Commissioners. These students succeeded at lobbying the powers-that-be to increase the number of treatment beds for adolescent alcohol and drug abusers.
- Teenagers charged with nonviolent alcohol and drug offenses often are tried and sentenced by their own peers who serve as the lawyers and jurors in teen courts. Teen courts, including one of the oldest in Broward County, Florida are known to be an effective system for first-time juvenile offenders.
- Valerie Edwards survived a car crash but her friend didn’t. This sixth grader together with classmates and parents lobbied the Maryland legislature and succeeded in closing a loophole in the state DUI law. Now police are required to administer a drug and alcohol test to the driver at the site of a life-threatening car crash.
EDUCATION & SCHOOLS
- Check out two report that are full of examples of students leading efforts to education reform: Voices of Urban Education: Youth Organizing for Education Reform and Youth Organizing for Educational Change
- Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) surveyed students, teachers and parents and produced two major reports documenting the school-to-prison pipeline. These students succeeded in changing the discipline policy for minor offenses for the entire school district and are demanding adequate funds to train teachers in restorative practices. This video provides a glimpse of this youth-led organization that collaborates effectively with the Advancement Project: youtube.com/watch?v=L25zCvH5y10
- The Rethinkers in New Orleans advocate for a range of issues for improving their schools and the community. These students turn the tables by grading schools for progress made in what is served in the cafeteria. Another major initiative is promoting peace dialogues and other forms of restorative justice. Here’s one of their videos: youtube.com/watch?v=Cp9lhmSwRRY
- The “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back” law turns the higher ed system on its head when it comes to paying for college in Oregon. It allows students to attend any Oregon public university without paying a dime in tuition or fees up front while attending school. Instead, students will pay after they graduate by taking a percentage of their monthly paycheck (approximately 3-5 percent) and putting it toward their accumulated tuition bill from their time in college. Tracy Gibbs from Portland State was one of three students who lobbied full-time for Pay it Forward, Pay it Back that will be phased in over the next several years says: “It was really surprising as a student to see how responsive the legislators are to hearing student voices. Putting a face to the problem is really important to lawmakers, and if more students were to voice their concerns about student debt, I think we could have a real movement on our hands.”
- Chronic lack of funding for urban schools is another fact of life yet speeches and statistics typically fail to get the attention of the powers-that-be. Students attending different Baltimore public schools took over 1,000 photographs documenting the conditions. Fifty of the pictures were selected for exhibits held in the city and at the Maryland General Assembly. Legislators decided on a $100 million increase for school facilities and due in part to this very visual advocacy campaign or “photovoice” project coordinated by Critical Exposure.
- Seattle High Schools can opt out of the standardized test called Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). Students joined teachers and parents which led to this decision by the Superintendent. Hundreds of students refused to take the test which was “critical to this victory,” according to the coalition called Scrap the Map. The Bartleby Project “invites 60,000,000 American students, one by one, to peacefully refuse to take standardized tests or to participate in any preparation for these tests.” Please let our national clearinghouse know about student-led efforts.
- Melissa Robbins began taking American Sign Language classes when she was about 8 years old. She wanted to study ASL in high school but she would not have received the necessary foreign language credit to graduate. School officials told her the only way to change the rule was if the University of Maryland recognized ASL as a language. Robbins wrote to the university chancellor and state lawmakers, arguing that ASL was a legitimate foreign language with its own culture, customs, grammar and syntax. Even after she graduated from high school, she continued to push for this change. In the fall of 2001, the Board of Regents at the University agreed and by December, the Montgomery County Public School Board pledged to develop an advanced ASL course.
- Definitely check out these two sites for more stories and resources: soundout.org and whatkidscando.org
HEALTH & WELLNESS
- Check out youth impact by Jóvenes SANOS in Watsonville, California at this City Council hearing that resulted in the passage of a local law requiring all new fast food chains and restaurants to offer healthy menu options in order to receive a building permit. For example, offerings might include fruits or vegetables prepared in a low-fat way, at least one low-fat vegetarian dish, or corn instead of flour tortillas. Ivan Hernandez with Jóvenes SANOS testified: “As teenagers, we want to have the choice to eat something healthy. With this ordinance approval, we hope to encourage other cities around the state as well and maybe make a difference nationwide.” Another victory by Jóvenes SANOS was the passage of the Metro Vending Policy in partnership with the Santa Cruz Metro Board to implement 50% healthy food options in vending machines inside employee facilities as well as provide wellness educational information to staff members. The policy also encourages markets and restaurants within metro stations to incorporate healthier and participants will receive a healthy Metro Vendor Award.
- Lacrosse player Breanna Sudano collapsed in cardiac arrest on the high school field but recovered because CPR was administered until the ambulance arrived. Breanna and other students collaborated with the American Heart Association in support of legislation that would require CPR to be a graduation requirement. Maryland joins over a dozen other states that have similar laws.
- The school-based health center at the Montefiore Medical Center School Health Program in Bronx, NY now has a youth advisory council to advocate for SBHCs and other health access issues with the guidance of youth and adult staff with Youth Empowered Solutions.
- The Humboldt Health team from Zane Middle School in California, surveyed their peers and found that students dislike the fountains because “the water is dirty and tastes bad.” They made a presentation to the Health Department which approved their solution for hydration stations which is an insert in the wall that dispenses water into refillable bottles using infrared sensors. Demand for water (not bottled water) is up!
- Students from over a dozen Chicago high schools active with Mikva Challenge formed a Teen Health Council. Their walkability assessment detected problems from school cafeterias to te surrounding neighborhood. Their Youth Wellness Team Toolkit is designed for school administrators but it also continues to serve as a roadmap for student activists.
- As part of a classroom assignment to learn about AIDS, several high school students at the Real School in Windham, Maine visited community health centers and became acquainted with people living with HIV. With full permission, the students created a photography exhibit of a diverse group of children, women and men infected with the virus. The exhibit traveled to schools throughout the state. Then the students created a poster using all the black and white photos with one blank space along with the message: “If You Don’t Think You Need HIV Education, We’ve Saved A Place for You!” This project continued to evolve and the students produced a 30-second public service announcement that was broadcast on Fox and several other cable stations.
- Youth Making A Change surveyed students and found depression was a widespread problem. YMAC calculated that it would cost $109/pupil per year to provide a qualified mental health counselor in every high school. At first YMAC was not successful in convincing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors but they persisted and ultimately succeeded. Check out colemanadvocates.org
- The Lunch Bunch at Orange High School in California worked for four years to advocate for healthier food choices in the cafeteria. These student activists led numerous changes including 1) introducing salads which are so popular the cafeteria often runs out; and 2) alternative vending machines that offer more nutritious choices, especially for after school sports activities, that are turning a profit.
- The Provo High School Self-Esteem Club in Utah pursued the idea of a Clean Indoor Air law and mobilized students across the state from 22 other high schools. Over 2,000 youth came to the rally at the State Capitol and the TV cameras rolled, broadcasting handmade banners including “I Want Fresh Air.” One group of students painted their faces white to symbolize those who have died from secondhand smoke. Students’ face-to-face meetings with state legislators in addition to writing letters overwhelmed the opposition by restaurants and the tourism industry that had successfully defeated similar bills during the previous three years. The law passed.
RECREATION & YOUTH SERVICES
- Seven of 15 branches of the Oakland Public Library were slated to be closed because of citywide budget cutbacks in California. The Library’s Youth Leadership Council protests along with a youth rally organized by Environmental Studies High School students had an impact: no branch closings or no reduced hours but nearly a dozen staff positions were eliminated.
- In Leesburg, Virginia, several 14 and 15-year-olds were angry that in-line skaters and skateboarders were banned from using sidewalks, parking lots and just about every other stretch of pavement. The boys voiced their complaint to their Town Council, asking for some place to skate. Three of the teenagers were selected to serve on a parks committee and collaborated with architects and others to design a skating facility.
- Sisters In Action For Power conducted surveys and made a case to TriMet, the mass transit system in Portland, Oregon, to give free bus rides to and from school to low-income students. This group also helped spur TriMet to establish a Citizens Advisory Committee of Transportation Equity.
- Y2Y is youth-run overnight shelter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Young people who have been homeless served as key planners in designing this new facility. This model also engages volunteers and its guests as the next generation’s leading advocates for young adult-driven solutions to homelessness.
VIOLENCE & JUVENILE JUSTICE
- The Florida turnpike has only one pedestrian bridge that is in Broward County, the second most diverse urban community in the U.S. This overpass is the only route for many students to get to and from their middle school as well as the YMCA that operates on the campus. Students like Kervens who “got jumped” brought to light the 50-police report about rampant crime on the bridge. A youth-led project that convened neighborhood groups and lobbied city commissioners resulted in a nearly $500,000 grant that included lighting and sidewalks. When the mayor asked the students whether he met their expectations, they didn’t let up requesting safety call boxes. Watch Kervens and another classmate and the new art project on what the community calls the much-safer “Overpath.”
- Caged Birds Sing is a 18-page booklet written by girls at a juvenile justice facility, published by the Maryland ACLU. Unlike most reports that use graphs, quotes or photographs to enhance the content, every page makes a statement with their artwork. Caged Birds Sing concludes with 41 specific policy recommendations and ultimately state juvenile justice authorities adopted three of their most significant proposals. Their gifted adult ally writes in the preface: “I cannot stress enough how completely this report is that of the girls themselves…I simply typed up their comments and strung them together, making minor changes or additions for tone, clarity and consistency only when necessary.”
- Peer educators with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence also educated their state lawmakers. In close collaboration with adult staff and other advocates, this intergenerational campaign got a new law on the books. The statute mandates that school districts include healthy relationships and teen dating violence prevention in the health education curriculum for grades 7-12.
- “Why can a kid get a gun in a few hours, but have to take a bus outside the neighborhood to buy school supplies?” This powerful sound bite by a member of Teens On Target youthalive.org convinced the Oakland, California City Council’s vote to approve a series of gun control ordinances including a requirement that buyers obtain trigger locks.
- The San Francisco Youth Commission consists of 17 members between the ages of 12 and 23 who review any legislation pertaining to young people. The SF Board of Supervisors was ready to give green light on Governor’s plan for a new juvenile bootcamp without hearings or debate. Several Youth Commissioners compiled information including the recommendation by the bipartisan California Legislative Analyst that urged the Legislature to deny the $9.2 million request. The youth impact: the Board did not approve the Governor’s proposal.
- A conflict resolution mediator, Kendell Kelly, urges her peers to tell decision-makers what’s really happening at school: “Speak at the formal meeting of the School Board. Get it out in the open. Most important, be specific about what needs to be changed.” She persuaded the Superintendent and School Board to replace her principal and agree to other student proposals to reduce the escalating school violence after a classmate was killed on campus.
- The Youth Uprising Coalition played an active role in defeating a proposed night-time curfew in San Francisco. Their petitions and marches protested criminalizing young people. Instead the group called for a positive approach that included a roller skating facility and other community programs as well as job opportunities for youth.
VOTING: YOUTH SUFFRAGE
- The City of Takoma Park, Maryland, located in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, approved legislation that allows 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. “Virtual representation isn’t enough” argued one student who testified.” Watch the City Council hearing starting at about 30 minutes at http://takomapark.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=12&clip_id=1265).
- The second city in Maryland unanimously approved extending the right to vote to 16-year-olds. The electoral pie will be bigger in Hyattsville when it comes time next spring to vote for Mayor and City Council members as well as local ballot issues. Watch young advocates testify on January 5, 2015 that led this DC metro area city to join Takoma Park in lowering the voting age.
- The San Francisco Board of City and County Supervisors is considering a Charter Amendment to grant voting rights to 16-year-olds in municipal elections as well as the local school board. The SF Youth Commission, comprised of high school students, shared its research and testified at a June 8, 2015 hearing. This suffrage legislation is pending and updates can be found at Vote@16SF.