AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
The Role of Youth Voice in Creating Social Change
In a refreshing change from a typical political debate, an alliance of local youth organizations put Providence’s five mayoral candidates through their paces this summer in a youth-organized, youth-led forum. The candidates answered questions about education reform, neighborhood and school policing, profiling in the city’s gang database, budget priorities, and the role of youth civic engagement and leadership. They got feedback in real time, courtesy of green, red, and yellow cards that the audience displayed to show their agreement, disagreement, or neutrality about candidate responses. They participated in pop quizzes about Providence communities. They got a letter grade on each of their responses and an overall GPA from the audience. And all five candidates signed on to the Youth Bill of Rights — a document defining basic rights that all youth should have, predicated on the community issues that affect them most.
The Mayoral Candidates Forum, which brought together an audience of 175 young people and adults, was organized, facilitated, and documented by youth active in Youth4Change (Y4C) — an alliance between District Action for Rights and Equality, District-Wide Student Government, Providence Youth Student Movement, Young Voices, and Youth in Action. Like a host of other youth organizations in New England and elsewhere, Y4C is working to put youth voice at the forefront of creating social change. The Annenberg Institute strongly believes that supporting this type of youth organizing for school improvement is an essential investment for funders and other reform support organizations that are committed to equity and excellence in public education. We provide such support for New York City’s youth-led Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC).
A simple yet powerful message emerges from events like Y4C’s forum: though they may not be of voting age, young people have the capacity and desire to be politically informed, invested, and involved in the issues and decisions that affect them. In a reflection on the forum, Y4C members Jennifer Ventura and Israel Okunlola wrote,
Being part of this experience was exciting and empowering.... Our community now has a different view on young people and what we are capable of achieving.... Adults can see that we are serious about our community and, although we are young and can't legally vote, we still have a say in what happens in our community.
In the successful model that has developed in organizations like Y4C and UYC, young people partner with a lean cadre of adults to develop leadership skills, gather and analyze information, make decisions, and take action on issues that most affect them. These organizations also engage the larger youth community in understanding issues and demanding change. And alliances — such as Y4C and Boston’s emerging Youth Organizers for the Now Generation (YOUNG) — can leverage the constituencies of individual organizations to push not only for the collective work of the alliance, but also to support each others’ work, thus increasing visibility and impact.
External support is critical to helping community and youth organizations increase their institutional capacity to effect change and to ensure that their work is sustainable. More broadly, investments in youth and adult organizing demonstrate a commitment on the part of funders to systemic change and social justice. The Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing states:
The challenge for youth development stakeholders is to develop and fund strategies that support young people as they struggle to improve the quality of their lives.... Given adequate resources and opportunities for scale, youth organizing can build more effective youth development policies and institutions. And it is here that youth organizing may well reach its potential as both sound youth development and the harbinger of democratic possibilities.
The Annenberg Institute is working with the New England-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which is placing an emphasis on growing community demand as part of its District Level Systems Change initiative. Public understanding and demand is one of the three key components of the Foundation's theory of change for this initiative focused on student-centered learning (the other two are model development and policy change). Through its Opportunity Fund grants, the Foundation is looking to invest in organizations that galvanize a wide variety of community members, including parents and students, to demand an active and authentic role in reforming the education system to meet the 21st-century needs of all youth. This type of investment not only helps to build the capacity of individual organizations, but also demonstrates commitment to ensuring that the voices of those who are most affected are central to education reform efforts.