Student Voice: The Power of Amplifying Education’s Ultimate Stakeholder
March 23, 2018

Young people are ready to help lead the charge. Policymakers would be wise to heed our interest and energy and enlist us as full partners in finding solutions.”

This from three Kentucky high school students—all on the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team—in a recent op-ed promoting a rally at the state capitol focused on improving school safety.

As the national conversation around student voice swells, these students and millions of others are raising their voices—many in new and powerful ways—teaching adults lessons about advocacy and urgency.

Education advocates have been working to amplify student voice for as long as they’ve served students, and seasoned advocates know the more you listen, the more you learn. Whether you are building a new student voice opportunity or growing a decade-old program, in this three-part series, advocates and the students they serve share insights on the power of elevating education’s ultimate stakeholder.

In the Streets & On the Capitol Steps

“What if I told you that there are kids ready to drive change across the globe, but nobody trusts them to hand over the steering wheel.”

Alphina Kamara—a high school senior and a DelawareCAN Youth Advocacy Council member—recently took the stage at TedXWilmington. She left the crowd with this: “Your age is nothing but a number when it comes to making change.” Watch Alphina’s full speech.

Today’s students are digital natives and can intuitively storm social media channels. But across the country they are demonstrating that how and when they show up in-person matters too.

Atnre Alleyne, executive director of DelawareCAN, reminds advocates to plan for these moments carefully: “Student voice work is largely youth development. Advocates must dedicate time to help students prepare. Unlike adults, generally students get fewer opportunities to prove they are critical contributors to the conversation.” DelawareCAN supports the work of the Youth Advocacy Council of Delaware—the first statewide forum for youth to learn about education policy and build their own advocacy campaigns.

This week, the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team organized a teach-in and rally at the Kentucky state capitol, run almost completely by students. Drawing hundreds of students and adults, the rally focused on strengthening school safety and climate in the Bluegrass State. This follows their 2015 rally lobbying for school boards to have the autonomy to put students on superintendent screening committees, and a rally they led in 2016 to draw attention to the diversion of state lottery funds from need-based college scholarships.

At this week’s rally, high school sophomore Nasim Mohammadzadeh emphasized the importance of collective problem-solving: “It is okay that we don’t yet all agree on what needs to be done…What is most important for now is that we grapple with the issue together, as a civil community that cares about our schools and that includes young people in the discussion.”

Rachel Belin, Prichard’s Student Voice Team director, shared this advice to advocates hoping to plan events on a similar scale:

“Co-design as much as you can with your targeted audience because even though it takes a serious up-front investment of time and energy, the payoff is huge.”

In Tennessee, leaders at both Campaign for School Equity and TennesseeCAN have created opportunities for students to build advocacy skills and put them into practice.

Shelonda Richardson spearheads TennesseeCAN’s Change Agent Pilot Program, designed to give Memphis students a deep dive in the legislative process: “We help students understand the policy process, so they can get engaged earlier and contribute to building smart education reform policies now and also in the future.”

After a day at the Tennessee capitol with the Change Agent Pilot, high school senior Karylnn Woods reflected, “I learned that it’s not as easy as I thought it was. When we complain about legislators, we didn’t know all that it takes for them to do what they have to do.”

Campaign for School Equity is starting in the classroom, partnering with ten high schools to reach 221 high school students through their Student Advocacy Program. The program delivers a year-long curriculum and mentoring program to help students identify and advocate for education issues they care about. Those issues ultimately inform Campaign for School Equity’s policy platform to ensure student voices are heard at the state and local level. And earlier this year, 100 students from the program lobbied at the state capitol on the issues they’ve been learning and discussing.

On the West Coast, The Education Trust-West hosted the 2015 Black Minds Matter Day of Student Advocacy, attracting nearly 1,000 California high school and college students as well as national attention.

Ryan Smith, The Education Trust-West executive director, described how the rally got the attention of policymakers:

“It’s hard to ignore people power. Bringing nearly 1,000 students together in the State Capitol makes the experiences of students the centerpiece of policy discussions on equity rather than just numbers.”

Read more about the Black Minds Matter campaign in the accompanying report or watch the highlights in this video.

While students are leveraging in-person events to show their passion and commitment, they are also approaching advocacy from multiple angles. In our three-part series, find out how students are leveraging digital channels and research to make their case. Check out the other two posts in this series on education’s ultimate stakeholder.

If you are interested in connecting with any of the leaders mentioned, reach out.

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Ashley Schmidt

Ashley is PIE Network's Senior Director of Member Engagement & Communications

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