When I was a student, we learned about “peaceful protest” like most kids. We heard about Rosa Parks, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi.
Students at my alma mater (in a wealthy suburb) didn’t just learn those lessons, though, they often practiced them. Recently, students at my former high school were denied a Q&A with Macklemore and financial grant because of the outcry of a few parents. They protested and got the principal to change her mind.
This made me realize that students at my school have always known how to organize and demand change. Students walked out to protest the Iraq war in 2003. Students also walked out in 2010 to protest teacher pay.
I wondered why students in my hometown, which was a generally idyllic (and mostly white) place to grow up, were often able to organize easily around their social concerns, yet, students who were facing far worse issues did not simply stand up and refuse. Of course, there are some historic examples, such as the Chicano student walkout. Still, given the large-scale injustice faced by communities of color, I wondered why I had not seen organized protest more often (or seen it make large-scale change). Was it simply underreported? Were there other issues at play?
I reached out to educator, social justice advocate, and awesome student organizer Xian Franzinger Barrett with the following question:
Besides the normal trappings of privilege (e.g., access to resources, Whiteness), what obstacles do you think students in communities of color or low-income communities face when getting their voices heard? Is it mindsets from internalized oppression? Is it something else?
He responded to me with some important words:
I think that [students of color and folks] in highest need communities are BEST equipped to advocate for a better society, not all for themselves but for everyone [Note: Yosso's view of cultural capital discusses this more]. In my experience, through their own lives, my students are FAR more equipped for activism than their more affluent counterparts (myself included)... [However,] this energy is not even untapped, it is capped, contained, and then smothered and crushed. Zimbardo's studies [as discussed here, here, and here] have shown that folks on the negative end of the privilege spectrum engage in many times more acts of heroism, but lose hope over time due to lack of support, i.e. if a rich, white, man does something mildly charitable and mostly self-serving, he gets canonized, but if a poor [person of color] does something much larger--say, defend a fellow student from a vicious police attack--they not only don't get supported, they get often get punished. We can't design our classrooms halfway. They either support student agency and rebellion or they support oppression and compliance. My students design protest and action all of the time. They live and breath it. We walk by the Uno charter school and they say, "We should information picket so parents here know that our school is better." We march and they say, "We should plan a funding protest that brings all the schools in our community." But what happens even in most "progressive" classrooms when they dream their world? "That's not on the lesson plan today." "Your passion is good, but you should focus on this instead." "Social Justice is good, but that's too far." ... Our youth are already civically engaged. Our system works double time to disengage them.
Xian’s words hit home, especially the last line. In a society that consistently tries to tear down students, we should be doing everything we can to lift them up, to make them feel powerful. We should use language that empowers their critical thinking, and we should be willing to be questioned by them.
That is why the stories behind #ConcernedStudent1950 from Mizzou are paramount to their education. We should share their story with our students. We should share their courage, and seek to be like the coaches and faculty who stood with them.
As Xian notes, there is no half-way effort when it comes to supporting student voice. There is only standing with our students and assisting their calls for change, occasionally helping them hone or guide their voices. The other, far worse option is complicity and silently watching them get dragged down and, thus, dragging them down in the process.
We should share stories like the Dyett Hunger Strike or Chicago’s student budget protests with them. We should uplift them with reminders that, despite society’s best efforts to convince them otherwise, people from oppressed communities can enact meaningful, powerful social change. In fact, they are the most capable and best suited to do so.
As teachers, we make a daily choice whether to share stories that empower our students, or keep them hidden as a way to silence them or give into our own fears. My students will discuss student voice and the Mizzou protests tomorrow. I encourage teachers to reflect on these events and somehow do the same.
The question for us, as teachers, is not if our students are capable. It’s whether or not we are willing to hand our students the megaphone and be brave enough to stand with them when they let their voices ring out.
Top image: A member of the black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 gestures while addressing a crowd following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign, at the university in Columbia, Mo. —Jeff Roberson/AP
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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.