School Climate & Safety Video

A Year of Activism: Students Reflect on Their Fight for Racial Justice at School

By Kaylee Domzalski & Brooke Saias — June 04, 2021 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in May 2020, high school students across the country organized and participated in a summer of protests against racism and police brutality.

In some places, their goals, like severing ties between police and school districts, were successful. Other calls to combat racism in schools and implement anti-racist curriculum have been met with significant pushback.

Amid their activism to bring change to their schools, they were also on student council organizing special events, writing college applications, and maintaining grades in challenging IB programs. A year later, Education Week asked three student activists to reflect on the work they did and how things have changed, as they look to the future.

After speaking up about racism, a disappointing outcome

For Traci Francis, a senior at South Portland High School in Maine, it all led to burnout.

“I’m proud of the work that I did at South Portland,” Francis said. “But sometimes I just don’t know if it was worth all of the energy that it drained me of.”

As a junior, Francis filed a complaint with the school district after her sociology teacher used a racial slur in the classroom. She was disappointed with the district’s response.

“They were basically like, thanks for speaking up, but we’re not going to do anything because they felt like they had taken correct action,” she said.

Regardless, Francis still thinks the work that she and her fellow classmates did in speaking up is something to be proud of. “We can’t change their response to certain things and because this is an institution and it’s a system, it’s academic, it’s not going to show right away.”

Francis, who will attend Vassar College in the fall, doesn’t plan on getting involved in organizing in the same way she did at South Portland High. “I know that I want to go into social justice work,” she said. “But when I go to school, I’m going to be learning and that’s how I’m going to fight for justice.”

Turning protest energy into a push for changes at school

As a rising junior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School in Baton Rouge, La., Noah Hawkins channeled his feelings of frustration and anger at George Floyd’s murder to help organize protests in Louisiana.

“I wanted to use those emotions in a positive way instead of just sitting on them,” he said.

See Also

Demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge as they remember George Floyd on the one-year anniversary of his death, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in New York.
Demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge as they remember George Floyd on the one-year anniversary of his death, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in New York.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

But after the protests stopped, he felt overwhelmed. “I definitely think I have a better appreciation when people organize because it was a stressful process having all the right things together.”

Eventually, he took a break from the news, social media, and community activist work to refocus on creating change through the school’s student council.

“This past school year, we wanted to have a week of education where we just talked about sexual assault and educate about the social climate and environmental… issues that are going on,” Hawkins said.

On top of narrowing down a list of colleges to apply to and searching for scholarships, Hawkins also plans to keep creating educational and enjoyable events for his school as the senior student council secretary.

“This year really opened up a lot of concerns that we’ve had with our school and how it was being run. So this coming school year we really want to attack with that and just improve it.”

A shift from protest participant to a leader for change

If Sandra Kenny, a graduating senior at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Md., could tell herself anything at the start of last year’s protests, it would be to stay unafraid.

“I’m really proud of my generation and just how vocal we are about civil rights,” she said. ”If you believe in something, don’t be scared to be adamant and be bold about it because that’s the only way that change happens.”

It’s a perspective that she’s maintained as she’s connected with other activists in her community in Takoma Park, Md.

“As a junior... I felt like I was always being led by other people and I didn’t really step out of my comfort zone. I would go to the protests because they’re nearby and that’s what I could do,” Kenny said. “But it was very different to be at the front with other people who want to be at the front… And it definitely makes me excited for what I can achieve in the future, too.”

Throughout the last year, Kenny was chosen to participate in a race study at the school where she was able to share her experience as a Black student taking AP and IB classes. Kenny said that it was meaningful to have teachers listen to her and the other students of color about their experiences in their classes.

Having those conversations, on top of learning about government in her AP classes and participating in protests, are what led Kenny to choose to major in political science in the fall at Georgetown University.

“In order for someone to make a change in government, you have to understand government,” she said. “Seeing how politicians have acted has made me, personally, a more all-in type of activist. It’s made me [think] more like, you need to do something. Something needs to be done for change to happen.”

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.
School Climate & Safety Former NRA President Promotes Gun Rights at Fake Graduation Set Up by Parkland Parents
A former NRA president invited to give a commencement address to a school that doesn’t exist was set up to make a point about gun violence.
Lisa J. Huriash, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
2 min read
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, speaks during the CPAC meeting in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2010.
David Keene, the former president of the NRA, promoted gun rights in a speech he thought was a rehearsal for a commencement address to graduating students in Las Vegas. The invitation to give the speech was a set up by Parkland parents whose son was killed in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP