Imagine one of the biggest days of your life: your high school graduation. Imagine walking across the stage and getting handed your diploma and shaking your principal’s hand. You look out in the audience with a huge smile, searching for the proud, shining faces of your family, the very people you have been waiting to share this momentous occasion with…
…and they are not there.
This scenario would have been the reality for many seniors at Chelsea High School in Chelsea, Mass. When the Youth Activism Project led a workshop with members of the Class of 2019 last May, students discussed many issues affecting their community—from gentrification to school budget cuts—but perhaps the issue that generated the most energy was the fact that graduation was held in their gym.
outdoor Graduation: a matter of social justice
Due to the size of the gym, graduating seniors at Chelsea High School had been limited to five family members. This policy did not take into account that Chelsea’s immigrant-majority population tends to have larger family sizes. As a result, the gym becomes uncomfortably overcrowded and as many as five hundred people are forced to see their child or sibling graduate from a screen in the auditorium. A black market even developed where students would sell unused tickets or even print and sell fraudulent tickets—often going for $100—which prevented families with legitimate tickets from entering.
“Our parents have sacrificed so much for our education,” says Outside Graduation leader Iveth Rodriguez. “I think the least that we could do is let them see us graduate.”
“I did not want my family to be the one left outside of the gym and I did not want any of my classmate’s families to be outside of the gym,” says Manuel Teshe. Despite previous attempts of students to bring graduation outside in order to allow all family members to attend, Manuel decided that things were going to be different his senior year. And just like that, the Outside Graduation movement was born.
From students to activists
Manuel and two friends started gathering signatures of students and by the time their senior year had begun, over 50% of the student body expressed support for bringing graduation outside. With this information, they decided to target the school board…despite having little to no advocacy experience. With the support of teacher allies and an open-mindedness to considering different strategies, Manuel, Iveth, Gitu Degefa, and Raysa Estrada and several other students attended five school board meetings and met with school board members individually until they finally got the yes.
But the fight has just begun
But students are still far from victory. Now, it’s a matter of figuring out where graduation will be held. The school board is insisting on the baseball field, but its dusty, awkward layout will still create a less-than-enjoyable experience for students and their families. They are insisting on having it on the newly-renovated football field and are now tasked with raising half of the money to protect it; if they meet their $5,000 goal by November 27, they will be allowed to keep fundraising for the full $50,000.
While some people may be intimidated by this goal, these seniors are as cool as a cucumber.
“We’ve come so far,” says Gitu. “If we stop here, what was the point of everything else we just did?”
Raysa adds, “If you have a goal and you’re really committed to that goal, you keep on going with that and don’t let anybody stop you.”
December 17, 2018: The Chelsea City Council voted in favor of allocating $170,000 to protecting the field during graduation!!! Give it up for these incredible activists!!
June 16, 2019: The Boston Globe features these activists! “A lot of us now have a different view about how the government works and how we can generate support and make a change,” Teshe said. “I don’t think I could replicate that.”