School Climate & Safety Opinion

I’m a Youth Organizer. Stop Getting in My Way

Three truths about student activists for educators
By Maggie Di Sanza — March 03, 2020 4 min read

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 It’s outdated to think that educators cannot learn alongside their students, and many do.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.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as 3 Truths About Student Activists for Educators


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.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading
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
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn

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 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
School Climate & Safety Opinion The Police-Free Schools Movement Made Headway. Has It Lost Momentum?
Removing officers from school hallways plays just one small part in taking down the school policing system.
Judith Browne Dianis
4 min read
Image of lights on police cruiser
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 Video A Year of Activism: Students Reflect on Their Fight for Racial Justice at School
Education Week talks to three students about their year of racial justice activism, what they learned, and where they are headed next.
4 min read
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP