“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?
The new report by the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing signals hope. This FCYO 2013 National Scan of nearly 100 organizations in low-income communities of color reveals an expanding leadership pipeline and significant victories by young activists. Here are some important findings.
- Emphasis has shifted to young people and adults building power together instead of independent youth-led movements, notably immigrant rights.
- Many multi-generational campaigns are also multi-issue, for example, education reform includes changing school lunch and other nutrition policies.
- The age range has broadened at both ends of the spectrum and 15% of organizations surveyed now collaborate with young people under age 13.
- Macro-level advocacy such as changing district-wide school suspension policies has replaced smaller scale efforts like making bathrooms safer and cleaner.
- Campaigns to establish new youth centers or parks now are less common.
- Budget cuts to summer job programs, Planned Parenthood, school closings have led to cross-generational organizing and these coalitions have a record of wins.
- A comprehensive system of youth services and supports from academic help to mental health is a core program component, especially for organizations that have survived for over a decade.
- Aspirations demonstrating the “transformative power of organizing” reveal that 80% of youth surveyed plans to go to college and among low-income youth whose parents did not get a bachelor degree “The likelihood of attending a highly-selective college is 17% for YO alumni compared to 5% for the general population.”
- Evidence of more adult practitioners who are experienced with intentional processes that address young activists’ concerns such as “being pushed into collaborating with adults, or not having the proper amount of power or support in multi-generational coalitions.”
Even with these signs of progress, the authors of this 2013 Scan conclude: “Demographics, however, is not destiny. Sheer numbers alone will not result in young people of color becoming more civically engaged…Many are deeply disillusioned with institutions that they believe have not served them well, and therefore can be loath to get involved.”
Indeed young advocates mobilizing for systemic change remain rare and tend to concentrate in certain cities but the Hill-Snowden Foundation is one funder aiming to propel social justice that uses the Multi-Generational Organizing (MGO) model. I recommend reading the Foundation’s Strategic Plan and make sure to eyeball the impressive organization list at the end of the FCYO report.