I have been a youth activist and organizer for most of my high school career, planning rallies and marches, conducting educational outreach, and lobbying against archaic legislation. Here’s a pattern I’ve seen too often: Student advocates step out; administrators put their authoritarian foot down. From assuming lesser expertise about an issue to restricting freedom of speech, adults can’t seem to get enough of minimizing student impact.
While I have received a great deal of support from teachers and administrators, I have also often been faced with unnecessary restrictions. Here are three ways for educators and administrators to think differently about youth and stop limiting their impact.
1. Acknowledge student expertise. Understand that students are and can become experts in topics—whether or not an adult taught them. As a student activist, I am constantly surrounded by youth who have devoted their lives outside of school to becoming well-versed in topics like climate change, reproductive freedom, and access to healthcare.
Over the past few years, I have become knowledgeable about the reality that menstrual stigma and shame plagues our world. This understanding is not the shallow understanding that many people have. I can cite studies, name relevant organizations, put quantitative evidence into context, and outline clear plans to combat disparities. Plenty of other youths can do the exact same thing. Many of my friends invest themselves in LGBTQ+ justice and are constantly reaching out and engaging with the community to learn more.
From assuming lesser expertise about an issue to restricting freedom of speech, adults can't seem to get enough of minimizing student impact."
If educators and administrators stopped being threatened by knowledgeable students, they could actually learn a thing or two. It’s outdated to think that educators cannot learn alongside their students, and many do. We must begin to acknowledge that student expertise is not rare, nor impossible; in fact, it is quite the opposite. So, educators, step aside, and let your students guide you. Competent and accomplished young people are more than ready to take part in public policy discussions.
2. Overcome prejudice about ability. Do not allow prejudice to limit your belief in a student. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase, “You’re so well-spoken for a teenager!” I would be in the top 10 percent for income. That’s age prejudice at work. As a well-off white person, I see from the privileges accorded to me that students of color, students from poor families, and students that don’t fit other “ideal” characteristics are hobbled by prejudices in addition to age. We must grasp the fact that given the opportunity, youths have the power to advocate for the change that they wish to see. It is simply a matter of who and what our education system chooses to invest in.
3. Recognize and act on the educational value of activism. We must see the value of organizing, protesting, and advocacy in an educational context. Countless times in school I have been told to invest in things I was passionate about, to practice rhetoric and organizing strategies, and to apply my passion and skills to my actual life. But when given the opportunity to do so, I was told that youth protest does not spark legitimate change and that activism distracts from important schoolwork. Educational institutions must value real-world experiences at least as much as work inside the classroom.
When I started my own social-justice campaign, I had a myriad of problems to solve, from answering emails and phone calls, to garnering financial support, to convincing higher-ups that my idea was valuable. Such experiences allow students to explore not only what they are interested in, but also learn real-world skills that schools tend to ignore. If schools want to foster youth growth, as they claim, nothing does that better than working for an important cause.
We must always remember that the most influential and far-reaching revolutions in modern history have been largely run and supported by young people, including people not yet 20. From the mid-20th-century civil rights movements, to the Vietnam War protests, to the recent March for Our Lives movement in the United States and climate action efforts worldwide, youths have never shied away from fighting violence and oppression.
It is up to educators and administrators to use their privilege and authority as adults to not only allow students to explore and pursue revolution, but to support them in the face of challenges. The most impactful teachers in my life have stood up to authority to defend my activism. The adviser of my high school’s Women’s Club, for example, constantly engaged with the principal and school secretaries to clearly communicate our perspectives.
Make space on your platform for students. Enfranchise youth voices by being a catalyst for change within the education system itself. Encourage youths through opportunity and genuine follow-through. Respecting youth activism is not simply about valuing us, but earnestly believing in the positive change we can bring about.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as 3 Truths About Student Activists for Educators