Last year, the whole world came to a standstill as people from across the globe connected via social media, voiced their collective frustrations with their oppressive everyday experiences, confronted old regimes and sprung into action to topple powerful and seemingly indestructible age-old political structures.
In Egypt, millions of protesters from a variety of backgrounds successfully overthrew the repressive Mubarak regime in public protest that despite peaceful intent, often spilled into violence. In Syria, public demonstrations against the Bashar al-Assad government, the rampant police brutality and the imprisonment of those who speak out against the government evolved from small protests to a national uprising. In Chile, a number of student protestors from across the country grew frustrated with the large societal inequities, increased privatization and high prices of education. In response, they organized and started one of the most visible and passionate protests the nation had ever seen, which resulted in constant clashes with police. Global protests also appeared in Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Greece, Italy, Spain, the United States and more.
The powerful messages and meteoric growth of both the global protests and the Occupy movement here in the United States, has inspired an underground uprising from high schools all across the country. Younger Americans, not quite college-age, who have had their concerns dismissed by the educational and political powers that be, are simmering with emotion due to the mistreatment they receive in both schools and in society.
Over the last few months, I have visited and worked in public schools in both New York and Detroit. I have sat with students from both cities, listened to their collective frustrations and watched how their schools have transformed from beacons of hope to places of limitation. I have seen how the students' desire to create a future for themselves that is brighter and more accepting than those of the generations before has been squashed by a test-driven school system that devalues voice and squashes free thinking. I have seen the few schools that students see as a home, and that have the potential to harness the energy of the youth and translate it into academic success, close without warning. I have witnessed poor learning conditions in other schools, heard stories of unwarranted detentions and arrests based on race, sexual orientation, and gender. I've heard complaints about the disconnection between what is happening in school and what is happening in the world, and I've felt the energy of a movement in motion.
Student protests in Detroit, New York, Colorado, Chicago, and across the nation are indicators of the rising youth discontent within American public schools and they demand our attention. We as parents, teachers, and community members should support students in their need for more civic engagement in public education standards.
Less than 3 weeks ago, a group of African American male students walked out of their high school classes in protest of a number of issues including inadequate school resources and poor teaching. These students, who represent a demographic that is usually presented to the public as disinterested in education, were protesting to demand a quality education in a school district that seems to have been forgotten by the world at large. These young people, who were suspended for their protest, were silenced for seeking a voice and advocating for themselves. The question we must ask is, what happens to the energy and fervor that drove these young men to protest. Will it die with their suspensions? Will it simmer until it finds connections with others who share the same frustrations?
Over the last year, there has been an overwhelming response from a variety of groups and community organizations to the New York City Department of Education's decision to close public schools that were classified as underperforming. However, in the last few months, the voices of community groups and parents have been replaced with the voice of students who are advocating for their schools to remain open. After school hours, these students went to the site of the decision to close the schools, protested loudly, held up signs, and were confronted with the police instead of with answers. They returned home simmering, waiting for opportunities to connect to others who share the same frustrations.
Less than a month ago, high school students in Colorado began a protest after a few of them, who were working on the school yearbook, were forced to exclude a lesbian couple from their yearbook's pages. The students were threatened to either remove the picture or have the page they created completely removed. Their faculty advisor had the page replaced. These youth, despite their protest, were left frustrated and simmering, waiting for opportunities to connect with others who share the same experience.
Earlier this month, students in Chicago protested the layoffs of non-tenured teachers. For these students, their frustration lay in the fact that some of these teachers were "good teachers" who were described as making students love certain subjects while helping them get into college. Students couldn't understand the bureaucracy that forced good teachers out. They began an online petition using social media to garner support for their cause. In response, the local school board agreed to review their initial decisions. As these students wait for a final decision, their frustration simmers.
5) Florida Trayvon Martin protest
A few weeks ago, students from a number of high schools in South Florida engaged in a massive protest that included walkouts of their classes, and gatherings at a local mall in response to the Trayvon Martin shooting and the slow response of the Sanford police department to arrest George Zimmerman. As this group of students waits patiently for justice, they simmer in hopes to connect with others who share their same frustrations.
My intention in this piece is not to incite alarm or fear. It is to make clear that it is important for us all to work with youth to work through their frustrations, and express them in a constructive fashion. The current approach to dealing with youth frustrations, which is to ignore that these issues do exist, are somehow connected, and can simmer into something larger can no longer work.