The Other Student Activists

Throughout history, protests spearheaded by teens have helped facilitate change, too.

A protest organized by East High School students in Des Moines, Iowa  (Phil Roeder / Flickr)

In February 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T walked into Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat down at its “whites only” lunch counter. Every day for six months black students returned to the lunch counter; over time their numbers swelled. The sit-in—central in the fight for black civil rights—soon sparked similar nonviolent protests across the South. From its inception, the 1960s civil-rights movement was fueled by youth leaders and student activists. In many cases college students were the ones leading marches, voter-registration drives, and social-justice actions. Yet in lesser known, equally defining moments, younger students of color were spearheading efforts to tackle inequalities and systemic factors that worked against them.  

This was the case in Chicago, where public schools in segregated black neighborhoods were under-resourced and overcrowded. In what’s been called “one of the largest and most overlooked civil rights actions of the 1960s” 250,000 students staged a one-day boycott in October 1963. Estimates are that half of Chicago students participated in the walkout, with about 20,000 marching to the Chicago Board of Education in a mass demonstration for equitable resources for black children. The following year (1964) over 450,000 black and Puerto Rican students protested de facto segregation in New York City’s public schools, a decade after Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregated schooling.

More than 50 years later movements for racial and educational justice are once again building momentum. A surge of student activism has swept across academia in recent weeks as black students and their allies forcefully call attention to racist climates on American college campuses. And even as some college-student leaders cite the Black Lives Matter social-justice movement as their inspiration, what’s happening in higher education is being matched by younger peers. High-school youth are flexing their collective muscles for equity: fighting budget cuts and out-of-school suspensions as they take on racial issues and academic offerings.

Andrew Brennen, 19, sees parallels between the movements at the high-school and college levels. A national field director for Student Voice, a youth-led nonprofit growing a corp of involved middle and high schoolers, he points to students’ shared desire “to have agency and voice in their … institutions” and a newfound ability to network and organize through social media. “The student-voice movement is mobilizing around the sense that students are ignored as active agents of their own destiny,” says Brennen, adding that student input is “largely relegated to the margin when it comes to conversations about education policy creation, feedback, and reform.”

But many youth today are not content to be on the sidelines. Like several hundred Chicago teens who rallied against public-school cutbacks and potential teacher layoffs earlier this month. With the state budget at an impasse and politicians locked in a showdown, students held a die-in to signify the harmful impact of yet another budget shortfall. Similarly, Philadelphia students, rocked by a severe school-funding crisis, took to the streets this fall to protest cuts to neighborhood schools. “We just want to let people know … students around the district still feel the effects,” youth organizer Cy Wolfe, a senior at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, told the local ABC affiliate. “If we don't raise our voice, then who will?”

A 2012 paper on youth and social movements, a collaboration between Lady Gaga's Born this Way Foundation and Harvard University's Berkman Center, found young people to be powerful agents for social change, crediting undocumented-youth sit-ins for convincing President Obama to grant DREAMers a reprieve from deportation in 2012. The paper’s author writes of youth activists primed to “call out or identify systems of oppression, speak up, and mobilize their peers.”

When a message referencing the Ku Klux Klan and a public lynching was left on a school computer at Berkeley High in Northern California, about 1,500 students walked out of classes in solidarity with the school’s Black Student Union. The computer posting, to which a Berkeley High student later confessed, was the third in a string of racist incidents on the campus since 2014, according to school officials. Natalie Bettendorf, an editor with Berkeley High School's student newspaper, spoke to KPFA’s Youth Radio on the unifying power of student-led action: “Their whole idea of getting the whole school together would have seemed so ambitious to one person, but once I walked in on that quad and saw the entire school gathered together, listening, chanting … to see all the students lined up and getting their voices heard and crying, it was so powerful.”

While youth activism is now on the rise it is not without its critics, namely adults unable to view young people as equal partners in decision-making. Hints of this are seen in the reaction to student activists at Yale and University of Missouri, chastised to just “grow up.” The Harvard paper’s top recommendation to support youth organizers is respect and recognition, emphasizing “young people's autonomy, opinions, desires, and actual capacity to take part in and lead” movements for equity and justice. Upholding this critical value of student voice, a coalition of Asian and Pacific Islander students in Portland, Oregon, earned accolades from school-board members for their preparation and powerful anecdotes in a campaign to add ethnic-studies classes to the city’s public schools. The group is working with district leaders to bring Asian, black, Latino, Pacific Islander, Arab, Native, and Queer-Trans-People-of-Color studies to all of Portland’s high schools within the next four years.

At the root of student organizing is the demand for fair and equal treatment, says Jose Sanchez, the safe schools coordinator for Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, an alliance of mostly high-school students of color. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the area of school discipline. For years Chicago has had gaping racial disparities in suspension rates for black and white children, and a new study from University of Chicago finds the most frequently suspended students are concentrated in schools serving the most vulnerable student populations. Examining this data, VOYCE set out to address the impact of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions on their peers and schools. Illinois Senate Bill 100 was created in 2012 by VOYCE activists who traveled regularly to the state capitol in Springfield to lobby and educate lawmakers.

“When we were advocating for [SB 100] we sometimes weren’t taken seriously and faced adultism,” says Sanchez, adding that VOYCE students overcame the challenges by sharing their personal stories, combined with data and research aimed at eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline and “structural racism in our education system.” In August the VOYCE-drafted bill was signed by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, ending a bipartisan, hard-fought effort. Starting in the 2016 school year, districts throughout Illinois will be required to eliminate zero-tolerance punishment, minimize out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, and adopt other discipline-related policies.

Brennen, the Student Voice leader, reiterates the critical role that youth serve in bridging education policy and practice—and the historical legacy that lingers over this work. “The Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, Children’s Crusade of 1963 … young people put their lives on the line for quality schools,” he stresses. “Organizations working to improve education that aren’t including student voice are doing it wrong … [We’re] not presuming to be policy experts, but we are experts on how many policies play out at the classroom level. We’re a reality check.”