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

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.”

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
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.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive
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.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela

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 Spotlight Spotlight on Safe Reopening
In this Spotlight, review how your district can strategically apply its funding, and how to help students safely bounce back, plus more.

School Climate & Safety Biden Team to Revisit How Schools Should Ensure Racial Equity in Discipline
The Trump administration pulled a directive on fair discipline for students of color. Biden's Education Department will review the issue.
4 min read
a student sits alone in a hallway
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Image: DigitalVision)
School Climate & Safety Seclusion and Restraint in Schools to Be Dramatically Limited in Illinois
Lawmakers voted to limit the use of seclusion and restraint in schools, following through on promises made after a 2019 investigation.
Jodi S. Cohen & Jennifer Smith Richards, Chicago Tribune
6 min read
Students in fifth grade wear masks in their classroom as they wait for their teacher at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill. on Sept. 3, 2020.
Fifth graders wait in their classroom at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill., last September.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
School Climate & Safety Illinois Schools Secluded and Restrained Children Thousands of Times This Year
Illinois school workers physically restrained or secluded nearly 2,400 students more than 15,000 times this school year despite closures.
Jodi S. Cohen & Jennifer Smith Richards, Chicago Tribune
5 min read
Students in fifth grade wear masks in their classroom as they wait for their teacher at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill. on Sept. 3, 2020.
Fifth graders wait in their classroom at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill., last September.
Nam Y. Huh/AP