As the country began to shut down because of COVID-19 this spring, our staff at Mikva Challenge, which seeks to close the civic-opportunity gap for students from underresourced schools and communities, knew that this was the moment to expand, not retract, our work. Young people were abruptly facing a sudden and drastic reduction in their social connections and crucial services, including school meals, school-based mental-health counseling, after-school jobs, and an important safety net for identifying child abuse.
With that in mind, Mikva Challenge formed its first-ever National Youth Response Movement to elevate and promote youth voices and solutions during this national crisis. This group of 22 high school students from 15 cities across the country met twice a week with dedicated adult facilitators from early April to August. In doing so, they are learning leadership skills—specifically, civic-leadership skills—to organize themselves and their peers to respond to COVID-19 with youth-focused policy suggestions.
Youth advocate Cristina Perez of Mikva Challenge and a student-activist talk about the significance of student leadership during a crisis.
To help build students’ sense of civic power and agency, we have found it’s important to follow a few guideposts. Here is what other educators should consider when doing this kind of work, especially right now:
With the rise of the pandemic this spring and the national fight for racial justice, many young people are displaying inner reserve, resiliency, self-regulation, leadership, service, and citizenship in ways that no one could have anticipated.
In this special Opinion project, educators and students explore how young people are carving their own paths.
Build community and relationships to ensure students can grow, participate, and engage.
This is a cornerstone of our work, both in and outside the classroom. An interactive, youth-led, project-based education in democracy—also known as “action civics"—can only be successful when adult facilitators invest significant time in community building and storytelling to make young people feel safe enough to lead, engage with each other, and be vulnerable. To reach students in online learning spaces, those adult facilitators must be dynamic, outgoing, and persistent.
We learned that students need ample time to express their thoughts, either in the group setting or in smaller breakout discussions—both of which must be virtual now. But here’s the difficult part: Beyond the logistics of scheduling students across three time zones in the midst of the pandemic, NYRM adult facilitators needed to take into account the issues students were managing while they sheltered at home, including their mental health. Twice-weekly meetings gave students a much-needed outlet and a connection with their peers. But those who struggle with mental-health challenges had more difficulty re-engaging during their hard times, instead withdrawing from the virtual setting. We found that consistent contact with all participants beyond Zoom calls, including through supportive emails and texts, kept them engaged in the project.
Provide your students with the opportunity to exercise and mature leadership skills they may not even realize they possess."
Provide the space and opportunities for students to lead the way—and then step aside.
With students already receiving more than eight hours a day of virtual instruction in school, we knew that the NYRM virtual workshops needed to distinguish themselves. Mikva facilitators guided the process, but the students decided the focus and the projects. Students steered discussions, did the research, and made the calls on policy recommendations. Following the brutal killing of George Floyd, students went from addressing their peers’ social-emotional needs related to the pandemic to a more holistic vision focused on racially just and equitable schools. They wrote a series of policy recommendations for school and district leaders to dismantle the cradle-to-prison pipeline, build inclusive curriculum, and provide mental-health support in schools.
Invite students to “do” democracy, not just learn about it.
The pandemic has underscored the necessity for students to be in leadership rather than just learn about leadership skills. The pandemic gave students a purpose and a cause for their work. And it created an opportunity to reach lawmakers, researchers, and activists who were also working remotely.
Students recorded persuasive “soapbox” speeches on their phones about the impact of COVID-19 and then called on their peers to do the same. NYRM student leaders developed five policy recommendations for districts to create equitable schools by centering students’ voices, experiences, and needs. And last month, they shared these policy recommendations with members of Congress and education policy and philanthropic leaders during a National Youth Policy & Elections Roundtable.
What does all of this mean for schools?
Provide your students with the opportunity to exercise and mature leadership skills they may not even realize they possess. They have important ideas to share for how we can adapt and respond to this moment.
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A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as Empowering Youth Voice