Why School Leaders Must Support and Encourage Student Voice and Activism

By Arthur Baraf
August 4, 2017

Summer 2014. My students from The Met High School in Providence, RI, were getting ready for their sophomore year, enjoying (or suffering through) the heat of July, when they saw video of Eric Garner being strangled by police in Staten Island. Then in August, as they were getting haircuts and new school clothes, they read about the killing of Michael Brown and the civil unrest in Ferguson. Thanksgiving break, it was Tamir Rice. Spring break: Freddie Gray and Walter Scott.

Fast-forward to summer, junior year, as they worked their summer jobs and bussed down to the beaches of southern Rhode Island: Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose. Thanksgiving: dashcam video is released of Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by Chicago Police. Then, this past July, right before senior year: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, killed by police within two days.

The deceased were all people of color. And so are the majority of my students.

My students weren’t the only ones watching. Sabrina Smith, a veteran Met teacher and victim of police brutality herself, was watching and thinking about what she could do to help her students understand these horrific events. She set her mind to incorporating Black history and current events into her advisory curriculum, and she planned films to show and discussions she would lead about institutional racism, slavery, and mass incarceration. As senior year unfolded, her students started to understand the killings in a broader socio-political and historical context, and the more they learned, the more they wanted to be a part of the solution.

Meanwhile, I was planning our annual Social Issues Day, when we invite community members into the school to talk about the local, state, and national issues they are working on that impact the community. In our weekly one-on-one meeting, Sabrina shared her advisory curriculum and expressed the need for adult professional development on these issues of inequality. Thinking about our seniors’ desire to be part of a solution, I asked Sabrina if her students could lead a new format for Social Issues Day: instead of offering a variety of choices of social issue workshops, the students would design and lead a day-long deep dive into the interrelated topics of institutional racism, anti-racism, and the Black Lives Matter movement. She did not hesitate.

With some planning assistance, the students in her advisory took the pain and awakening of the past two years and channeled it into a strongly facilitated teach-in about oppression, privilege, activism, and how allies can join the fight against racism. Their keynote speaker from the ACLU spoke about citizens’ rights and how to approach an interaction with the police. The students also led a privilege walk. They opened up difficult conversations about race with their peers. They taught each other, and they taught us.

VIDEO: Social Issues Day  at the MET High School and students from Sabrina Smith’s Advisory present their project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color Conference.

Soon after, Sabrina and her students built on this success. After Sabrina spoke about her students’ work at the Coalition of Essential Schools’ Fall Forum, her Met students were invited to present their project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color Conference. Then they were invited to present and learn from 8th graders at the Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls, RI, who were also studying institutional racism and civil rights struggles. Next, one of the student leaders leveraged her internship at Direct Action for Rights and Equality to ask Marco McWilliams, the founding director of the DARE Black Studies program and a Brown University fellow, to be her mentor. With his support, her team led full-day teach-ins at three other Big Picture Learning schools in Providence, each time developing their leadership skills and becoming even more passionate about and sophisticated in their understanding of their cause.

This year-long project grew from students’ interests, students’ leadership, and students’ desire to engage their world as agents. This issue was truly “life or death” to them, and their education became a way to understand and affect it.

As their teacher, Sabrina helped fuel their interest with history and sociology, analysis, and debate, and she helped prepare them for greater leadership with timely guidance and planning. The resulting work was personal, political, controversial, and unapologetically about race. Though people in the community (faculty, students, parents, administration) often felt uncomfortable with the topic, the students pressed on, committed as ever to learn, to share, and to participate in change.

As school leaders, we need to encourage, support, and enrich student efforts like these. If we want to prioritize student agency and curricular relevance, we can’t be afraid of topics students are desperate to engage. The work can’t be done recklessly, of course—each step needs to be well thought out. But if we don’t have faith in our student leaders and in our communities to work through issues like systemic racism and inequality, we will be doing our students a major disservice. If we don’t support and encourage student voice and activism, we will be yet another institution that teaches this generation that their voice isn’t worth using and, if used, won’t be heard. But if we do support and encourage student voice and activism, we’ll be engaging students at the deepest levels, and we’ll be helping them see how the tools of critical thinking, research, communication, planning, and leadership can change the world.

Arthur Baraf is a Students at The Center Distinguished Fellow, principal of The MET, an innovative public school in Providence, Rhode Island and the host of The Student-Centered Learning Podcast. Subscribe and stay tuned for more episodes or check out the archives for a variety of SCL topics on Podomatic, Stitcher or iTunes. The Students at the Center Hub team and Arthur Baraf also developed a podcast blog series titled A School Leader’s Student-Centered Resources for Next Gen Educators.

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