The year was 2018. I was sitting in my 8th grade social studies class as whispers went around the room. Are you walking out? Do you think he will let us? I’ll do it, if you do.
When the time came for the walkout, I looked through the thin glass window on the door to see different faces all headed toward the entrance of the school. They didn’t think, they just did. I did think, and I froze.
I turned to my friend, who had stayed planted in her seat, so I stayed planted in mine. It took me five minutes to realize I couldn’t just stay planted in my seat. I was too late to walk out in a big group, so I grabbed a book and walked up to my teacher with shy, small steps. “Could I go to the media center to speak to my Readers Rally sponsor?” When the word yes left my teacher’s mouth, I was out of the room. I spoke to my sponsor for five minutes and then headed toward my actual destination.
The 17-minute moment of silence was for the lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the mass shooting, but I had missed five minutes of it.
Evolution of an Activist
Flash forward to 2020, a little taller, a little smarter, and way more vocal. I became a member of the Youth Activism Project, the Mental Youth Alliance, and VOX. I no longer felt the need to hide behind others or fake excuses to stand up for what I believed in. This time it was my feet confidently hitting the pavement, sign in hand with the words “Say Their Names.” And this time, I didn’t miss one second of that moment of silence for the lives lost to police brutality.
Advocacy and activism have become crucial solutions to the disparities seen in society. Angela Davis, one of the most prominent female activists during the Black Panther movement (and my personal hero), describes activism as a mindset that, “allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement.”
Often, young people are found right in the middle of these historical movements. While the youth serve as catalysts for activism movements, most times, the younger demographic is shockingly the most underestimated. While some argue that student demonstrations of activism serve as a distraction in schools, student activism continues to proactively develop self-sufficiency in young people and simultaneously eliminate inequalities in society.
A Sense of Identity
Active participation in one’s community fosters a sense of identity and civil responsibility. “Through activism, students develop critical analysis skills and a deeper understanding of society and social change,” Jerusha Osberg Conner, associate professor at Villanova University states in his article regarding student protesters. Research effectively exemplifies that participation in activism helps students learn how to advocate for themselves in society.
After the loss of my Papa in 2020, activism gave me a sense of purpose and a supportive community. It also empowered me to use my voice. Before joining the activist community, I was always afraid of speaking out. To this day, I am ashamed that I didn’t stand up for myself back in eighth grade on the day of the Parkland shooting walkout and be truthful about what I believed in.
Now, with the support of the Youth Activism Project, a non-partisan organization that has devoted their efforts in amplifying the voices of young people, I stand firm in my beliefs and act when others need help. Student activism not only helps the progression of students as members of society, but concurrently shows that activism aids the critical thinking skills students need to succeed in school.
Since the field of activism often attracts students, they can learn political and social engagement, in turn promoting problem-solving skills, leadership, collaboration, analyzing, initiative, and adaptability, which are all considered “future industry needs and educational readiness” skills, according to Dr. Tony Wagner, co-director of Harvard’s Change Leadership Group in his book “The Global Achievement Gap.” Therefore, skills developed through activism coincide with skills needed in school and this can empower students to succeed academically and build a lifelong devotion to standing up for their community.
Although research proves that students can benefit from participation in activism, some argue that activism efforts such as protests, walkouts, and boycotts hinder the learning process of students. Ben Kaufman, a student writer at Stanford, shapes this argument as he writes, “political arena has a tendency towards the strongest of opinions because of the importance…but strong opinions don’t demand harsh words or alarming actions, ” in his 2015 piece Student Activism: Productive or Reckless.
Although activism can produce strong opinions, activism does not only consist of counterproductive actions such as riots. Activism is a plethora of actions such as petitions, contacting elected officials, and attending school board meetings which can all serve as developments to student’s characters. Another argument Kaufman considers is students’ participation in activism taking away from learning, and “such disruption is counterproductive.”
Activism in School
However, if schools provide a safe, productive space for students to openly engage in activism, unauthorized demonstrations would not be necessary and activism would be incorporated into learning. Thus, it would allow students to simultaneously prosper academically and civically.
California schools illustrate the success of this technique by upholding the standards of the National Council for Social Studies, which states, “Civics…encompasses participation in classrooms and schools, neighborhoods..They will also learn civic practices such as voting, volunteering, jury service, and joining with others to improve society.”
Following these standards, the California Department of Education begins civic education in third grade, which involves how citizens participate in their community and the reasoning behind it. Furthermore, the support California schools provide for civic engagement helps to cultivate a progressive society where citizens collectively develop common values and responsibilities, such as responding to stereotypes or protecting the civil rights of others. When schools support and include student activism and civic engagement in student education, it produces progress in political engagement and social awareness in society while maintaining an educational environment free of distractions because activism is incorporated into the classroom.
Sixties Students Created Change
Given the support of adult allies, student devotion to resolving civic issues promotes awareness from society, which can effectively produce social change. This is explicitly demonstrated in the Civil Rights Movement when students became essential participants in protests like the Children’s Crusade. On May 2 and 3 1963, Rev. James Bevel organized a march composed of over 1,000 students to downtown Birmingham to discuss segregation with the mayor of Birmingham. “The Children’s Crusade turned around the entire civil rights movement…the vigor and anger of children who had just watched their classmates bleed to death in their hallways has propelled the most serious national debate,” in the opinion of Zachary Jason, a writer for Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Since the demographic was composed of children, the march gained sympathy around the nation and more Caucasian adults in America gained awareness of the extent of racism. This, in turn, promoted more advocacy for the cause. This demonstrates the effectiveness of student engagement in activism because this engagement attracts sympathy from the nation, which prompts increased support for any movement.
“Older Wisdom, Younger Energy”
Additionally, it shows that student activism motivates effective social change when it receives the support of adults, such as Rev. Bevel’s support in organizing the march and the newly produced Caucasian advocates for civil rights from the Children’s Crusade. Therefore, “it takes the wisdom of older activists and the energy of younger activists to create tangible change in this world. Young people are leading this [Black Lives Matter] movement, but we have to acknowledge that it is an intergenerational movement,” comments Alliyah Logan, a Smith College student and activist who focuses on empowering the Black youth.
Schools play an essential role in facilitating intergenerational movements such as protesting gun violence or promoting Black Lives Matter, because students create awareness that can prompt tangible changes in the laws that adults create, thus producing growth.
Society needs to break the cycle of underestimating the voices of students. Young people serve as the catalysts that start the conversation and the driving force that continues to push. Young people are the movement.
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