By Jackie Jenkins-Scott
College campuses across the country are experiencing increased student activism. Students are challenging practices inside and outside the classroom, demanding change and forcing our campuses to tackle important and long overlooked issues of class, race, social status, and the narratives that our institutions have chosen to promote. This is good! What better place for students to lead advocacy and systemic institutional change efforts than on our own campuses.
Student voices are also being heard at high schools and even middle schools across the country. Recent school walk-outs by students demanding more funding and great support of public schools are generating impressive results. Here in Boston, Wheelock College recently hosted, with our community partners, a powerful conversation with more than 500 middle and high school students from Greater Boston.
The half day Youth Symposium: Youth Speak discussed the politics of race, gender, and equity. The students heard an inspiring keynote message from Beverly Bond, Founder of Black Girls Rock! What was most impressive was the receptiveness of the “adults” including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and other civic and business leaders who were there to listen to the voices of the students. We asked these passionate students to identify the issues they believe affect them the most.
Their list of “hot issues” included:
• Jobs: Particularly lack of access to summer jobs, meaningful internships, and workforce readiness skills
• College Access: Particularly lack of resources to prepare for college
• Voice in School: Particularly lack of opportunities to talk about what’s going on in their schools around funding
• Community Violence: Particularly lack of opportunities to talk about community violence they may have experienced
The students told us the many ways that these issues affect them personally, as well as the impact they see in their neighborhoods and communities, the media, and their schools. It was an eye-opening experience for me and the other adults in the room. Far from the stereotypes we often see of urban youth as loud and uncaring, these students were thoughtful, respectful, well-spoken, and completely engaged in the discussion about improving their future. Most importantly, the students presented meaningful and measurable solutions that can be implemented. Our overriding message to them was that young voices matter and we wanted to hear what they had to say.
The voices of young people are incredibly important in any discussion of our future. In fact, the agenda of this and our two previous Wheelock Youth Symposia were created by the students themselves. This year, we asked the students to tell us how we can make Boston a better city, how we can make this a better country, and how we can address issues around race, gender, and equity.
The students brainstormed in small groups on what they need to overcome these issues and succeed. And boy did they have ideas to share!
• They recommend partnering with community organizations, such as the Boston Foundation, to create professional networking opportunities and training for paid jobs for young teens.
• They want better support from guidance counselors to navigate the college preparation process.
• They suggest creating a social justice course requirement for all Boston Public School students, where they could discuss school budgets and other social factors that directly affect their education.
• They want their teachers to get to know them better—without labeling them—and aim to understand their individual experiences.
• They want to develop a culture of “see something, say something” by fostering community activities where people can come together to talk about drugs, trafficking, music, and media.
They also told us we need to figure out how to make our institutions of higher learning—both public and private—more accessible to all students. These students laid out a pathway to success and there is a role for all of us adults to play—whether we’re in higher ed, public office, the private sector, or anywhere else. If we can rise to this challenge, I have complete confidence that these young people—and their peers across this country—can truly save the world.
The 2016 Youth Symposium was Wheelock’s third such event for middle and high school students. In our first Symposium, Archbishop Desmond Tutu engaged with youth on the very important topic of forgiveness. Our second Symposium, led by award-winning author and activist Hill Harper and Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, focused on our commitment to each other and our obligation to give back to society. For our third Symposium, we decided to focus on the intersection of gender, race, and equity because we all see it played out every day in the media.
I believe 2016 will be an incredibly important year for everyone in Boston, across America, and around the world. Not only are we electing a U.S. president, but we’ll be electing Congresspeople, Senators, and local officials who all will affect our ability to have the kind of life we want to have for ourselves and for our children. The 2016 Youth Symposium was a powerful day for the young people and everyone else in attendance.
As I complete my 12-year presidency at Wheelock College this month and celebrate the success of our third Youth Symposium, I hope that other institutions around the country will open their campuses to similar conversations with the voices of our youth. We have a lot to learn from them!
For more information on the Wheelock College Youth Symposium and video highlights of the 2016 Youth Symposium, visit our web site here.