As freshmen at a Philadelphia high school in 1994, Murad Ainuddin and his classmates grew alarmed over stories of seniors who, because they lacked required course work, had failed to get into four-year colleges. “There was not much expected out of us then. I could have slept through class and gotten A’s,” recalls Ainuddin of his days at Kensington High. So he and fellow students rallied the administration to replace 9th grade general math with algebra—and won. But they probably couldn’t have done it without Youth United for Change, a local organization that turns high schoolers into activists. As Erica Highsmith, a three-year member of the group from Olney High, says: “The only way to get administrators to listen to you is to be part of YUC. If you go to them alone, they never listen to you.”
If a group of funders has its way, more young Americans will join the Philadelphia students in fighting for better schools—and learning leadership and advocacy skills. Eighteen foundations have begun a five-year, $5 million nationwide effort to fund community-based youth-organizing initiatives. The first recipients of the $15,000 to $30,000 grants will be announced in March.
“This is not just about groups going in and raising hell,” says Jose Carlos Montes, program officer for youth development of the New York City-based Edward W. Hazen Foundation, which is leading the national effort. “It’s about helping young people gain broader perspective on their society, and asking what they can do about it.”
Youth United for Change is an instructive model for those hoping to jump-start youth involvement. Operating out of a former elementary school, Executive Director Rebecca Rathje, 35, who founded the group 10 years ago, and Assistant Director Andi Meck, 28, first find teachers willing to let them into their classrooms. Then they visit and, using their skills as veteran community- outreach workers, talk about the program, promote its leadership workshops, and canvass for new members. Roughly 600 students hear the group’s presentations each year. The organization has some 120 members—or about 30 students from each of the four schools in the predominantly minority, low-income North Philadelphia area it covers. YUC relies on foundations, including the Hazen Foundation-which is a longtime funder of youth-development programs-for the bulk of its $250,000 annual budget.
Through the group, students become adept at strategies for organizing their peers, such as using surveys to reflect student concerns. They also show sophistication in meetings with adults, often asking for time to “caucus” privately with one another over positions and strategy.
Though YUC draws students from all achievement levels, members often are not the students who typically look for leadership roles. “My teacher urged me to join. He knows I’m an outspoken person and I love justice,” says Derrick Smith, a blunt and articulate 10th grader at Olney High School. One of his pet peeves is that more of his teachers don’t make better use of technology. “We’re in the digital age. Blackboards are obsolete,” says Smith, who has lobbied for better use of technology in his classes.
Despite their modest resources, the students’ well-researched and relentless efforts have yielded impressive results. For example, the Philadelphia district recently doubled to $121,000 the aid it plans to spend on computers and other technology at Olney High this year, largely as a result of YUC pressure. “Had we not permitted them to advocate for us, the amount that we received might have been less,” says Carlos Lopez, the leader of the Olney Cluster, which is one of 22 school subdivisions in Philadelphia. “Their presentation was a hundred times better than what I could do.”
Olney High is also building a college-resource center in response to YUC presentations, which included an architectural model of how the room should look. After agreeing to build the room, school officials asked the students to pick its new furniture. And group members won lighting from the city for a crime-ridden tunnel through which hundreds of students pass each day on their way to Edison High School.
Elsewhere across the country, a handful of similar efforts have been successful, as well. For example, the Kids First! Coalition in Oakland, California, helped spearhead a ballot initiative that led to that city’s dedication of 2.5 percent of its annual budget to support youth development. The Boston Youth Organizing Project was instrumental in getting its city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority to extend the hours of student passes until 8 p.m. And recently, 400 students convened by the Philadelphia Student Union, another student-organizing project, drafted a list of target issues. On its agenda: lowering the cost of public transportation, getting a student vote on the district school board, and placing a community ombudsman in each high school to arbitrate student complaints.
Eric Braxton, director of the Philadelphia Student Union, says groups like his are crucial to making schools accountable. “There aren’t a lot of people who understand what it means to empower students,” he adds. “You get student governments, but they’re about planning dances.”
Not everybody in schools, though, embraces young activists. In North Philadelphia, some teachers refer to YUC as “YUCK,” notes Edward Torres, leader of the Kensington Cluster and a former principal of Kensington High. He recalls instances at his old school in which YUC students became argumentative and openly challenged teachers’ authority. (When he reported their behavior to Rathje, students reigned in their questionable conduct, he says.) Still, Torres denies that the student activists are “teacher bashers.” Instead, he claims, “they just brought attention to the idea that some teachers don’t care, and they are right.”
Other education officials mistrust adult organizers who are not part of the school system and don’t necessarily respond to its pressures. Rathje, who has been escorted out of at least one school by an administrator, believes that such independence is nevertheless key to activist work.
On the other hand, Rathje says, principals have been allies, teaching her students about school budgets and even asking for help on some problems administrators had failed to remedy. And the group has fans in high places, including Pedro Ramos, the president of the Philadelphia school board. A former student activist himself, Ramos argues that adults should be attentive to vigorous student involvement, not intimidated by it. “In this business, you can usually use all the help you can get, and these are young people trying to make their schools better,” he says.
—Robert C. Johnston