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.
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.”