Opinion

I'm a Student-Activist. Stop Turning Us Into Props

—Vanessa Solis/Education Week, Katflare/Getty

Teens have meaningful feedback to offer, if you give us a real chance

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In recent years, there has been a spike in the number of efforts to amplify the voices of young people in the decisions about our education system that would often be reserved for old, white, male politicians with little connection to the youth community. These efforts have taken myriad forms, from town halls in which students meet with officials (as we saw following the Parkland Massacre) to school district-sponsored advisory boards that are comprised entirely of teens. They all lack one key element: follow-through.

You see, adults have no obligation to take action on the often emotional and heartfelt sentiments expressed by children at these discussions, reducing them to mere publicity stunts at best. This leaves young people feeling disappointed, as though they have emptied out all of their feelings meaninglessly, just so that the organizers can make the audacious claim that they supposedly "care about youth."

I am one of those teens, and I am here to say that this approach benefits no one. When school leaders and board members only listen to these kids because they will help them appeal to a younger demographic, they ignore that we are the ones who are most affected by the some of our nation’s most pressing issues, from gun violence to poverty and even blatant discrimination. Very few politicians have taken the time to address these concerns, let alone experienced them themselves.

Not only is the concept of these staged dialogues inherently problematic, but their timing is also extremely poor: They only seem to occur following significant tragedies when cooperation is rarely a voluntary effort on adults' part. In Jacksonville, the shooting of Jordan Davis, a teen who was shot and killed in 2016 for playing "loud music," forced the city to momentarily listen to teens in a district-sponsored community discussion, yet no effort to follow-up was made afterward.

All of these factors deteriorate young people's trust and confidence in the capability of a divided political system that places partisan interests over our needs.

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So how can schools and districts extract meaningful feedback from teens in a way that respects our time and commitment? By providing teens with not just a voice, but a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect us personally. What's more, allowing young people to participate in and serve on community organizations, legislatures, and boards, can simultaneously teach teens leadership and public speaking skills. Contrary to popular belief, students can often be better advocates for ourselves than most of the lawyers, politicians, and representatives that are currently serving on our behalf. Who is better informed about the current state of hot-button topics like the school-to-prison pipeline or the prevalence of juuling among kids than those of us more directly affected?

What evidence do I have to support this? Myself. That's right, as the only teenager to serve on the Jacksonville City Commission on Safety and Crime Reduction, I am living proof that placing youth in a position of influence is not only possible, but an effective means of improving related policy. Now, despite being only 15 years old, my voice (and vote) have been instrumental in the development of various bills and legislative actions designed to protect kids like myself across Jacksonville, one of which has already led to the creation of various after-school centers throughout Duval County for at-risk youth.

So if you’re a public official and have taken the time to read this, please don't turn kids, many of whom are capable of being some of the fiercest advocates out there, into mere props for display.

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