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Youth organizers talk … about organizing

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.


Phillip Pearce
West Philadelphia High School graduate
Joined PSU in ninth grade

Getting into it: I started getting involved in ninth and tenth grades when PSU was organizing agains tprivatization and trying to get it out of the School District. We had a real big fight about that and that’s what interested me in Student Union. I saw that we actually won something and made a change, and that was decent.

What he’s gotten out of it: The most rewarding accomplishment was working with other PSU members, because one individual probably couldn’t do all of the things that we’ve been able to do together as a unit.

How it’s made a difference: Privatization was stopped in high schools largely by the efforts of youth organizers. We see what privatization is doing, making money off of education – off of me learning – and I don’t see that making sense.

The hardest part: Organizing around funding is our hardest fight because you have to go through the city, then the state, and then go to the federal level – it’s extremely hard to fight three adversaries at once.

Why it’s important: People think we don’t know anything and that we’re just complaining because we’re “angry youth” and that’s what “angry youth” do. There’s still the fact that oppression exists. People aren’t going to say, “Oh, awesome, you’re a bunch of youth and you want this? Great, here you go!” It’s learning to struggle.

Future plans: I’d rather be a part of something that would be larger than any amount of money. I want to start my own organization that gives free music training to any youth in Philadelphia, because I am a musician – I play guitar, piano, and I sing.


Queen Hicks
Senior at Mastbaum
Joined YUC in ninth grade

Getting into it: I signed up because I wanted a free keychain, so I filled out a survey. Then my mom made me come, and then I liked it. Some [students] come for the free keychains, some come for the free food, but once they come to our meetings and they find out what we’re about, they stay.

What she’s gotten out of it: Gaining leadership skills. When I came to YUC, I was shy and quiet. Now I’m outgoing and louder.

How it’s made a difference: When you’re in YUC you learn to become outspoken. This makes a huge diff erence in your school because now we will go to school and talk about YUC and the issues to people, and now people know what’s going on in their schools and the problems.

The hardest part: Getting people to take us seriously, because we’re teens, and people don’t think we know anything.

Why it’s important: When my mom went to school they had teams, programs and afterschool activities. I want to see that in the future. In order for it to get better, everyone has to be a part of it – students, adults, politicians.

Future plans: I want to be a pastry chef. They tell me, "You could be anything, you’re so smart." But that’s what I want. I want to go to school for culinary arts, and then I also want to go to school for business so I can own my own bakery. I also want to come back in 10 years and see 50 schools involved with YUC.


Leah Exum
Junior at West Philadelphia Automotive
Joined PSU in tenth grade

Getting into it: I was aware of the teachers being unfair, the building, stuff that they can make better, and thought, "How can I go about putting my voice out there to make it better?" because just walking down the hallway and complaining isn’t really going to do anything except let people see that you’re a complainer. [A PSU staff person] came to my classroom and showed me where my voice can be heard.

What she’s gotten out of it: Working for something I believe in – making a change, with people who believe in the same thing and aren’t scared to say what they think to adults – is outstanding.

The hardest part: Recruiting new students, because they don’t understand [the problems] yet. When we go to the diff erent classrooms, it’s not like they’re not listening. It’s that they can’t really process or understand what we’re saying to them.

Why it’s important: Maybe it won’t go so fast but youth can still make a change – there’s a lot of power within Student Union and YUC. When we get together, it’s amazing what we can accomplish and the conversations that we have. It’s almost like you got a bunch of adult board members sitting there – how mature, driven and determined everyone is.

Future plans: I would like to give some money to Student Union so we could have a steady place, a building where all the kids can say, "This is our Student Union home." I also want to return to PSU and see the new people, the changes each generation can make, and still voice my opinion. I want to be a fashion designer – I could design Student Union shirts, some gear!


Karl Knowles
Junior at Edison
Joined YUC in ninth grade

Getting into it: I was looking for something else to do after school. I was doing a play, but it ended. My friend told me to come to YUC and kept bugging me all day, so I said I’d show up. I saw that they cared about the schools, so I decided I was going to take part in it.

What he’s gotten out of it: Being in YUC, I’ve learned things I don’t think I would have learned in my whole life experience, like White supremacy and capitalism. Also, I enjoy being around other students and having company.

How it’s made a difference: We’re trying to get college recruiters for everyone at Edison High School, and small schools at Kensington. All of our campaigns, we win. And if we don’t win, we put something in place that was better than before.

The hardest part: Memorizing all the information, like who your congressman and state representative are, and the fact that there’s not enough funding.

Why it’s important: It changes a lot of people’s perspectives because it shows you what goes on in the real world. It shows you this is what’s happening, this is why you’re not getting this or that. I used to think people just don’t care – the teachers aren’t paid enough and they turn sour and don’t care, so the kids don’t care either and drop out. Now I see that some people care and just don’t try hard enough.

Future plans: I either want to go to college or stay here with YUC and work with younger versions of us.


Victor Saez
Junior at C.E.P.
Joined PSU in tenth grade

Getting into it: Actually I started just last year in PSU. I didn’t know that you have rights to more books, a better school. PSU just started opening my eyes to the various problems and that we’ve got to be responsible.

What he’s gotten out of it: If I hadn’t been a part of PSU I would have kept going down the same route I was going … [not caring] because the teachers have a hard time teaching.

How it’s made a difference: People come around the table and talk about things that are problems in school that they don’t talk about.

The hardest part: To me the hardest part as a new member is taking in the problems and thinking about how we’re going to solve them.

Why it’s important: Now that I’m a part of the group I feel as though we have power, because we are part of something when we come together – we’re youth trying to make a change. Other people can put us down, but we still believe in what we believe.

Future plans: I would love to just be a staff of PSU. Now I’m a student organizer, but I’d want to stay here making changes because I see that as a big power right there. For a job, I’m into carpentry.


Odessa Ogletree
Junior at Strawberry Mansion
Joined YUC in ninth grade

Getting into it: My cousin was in YUC and told me to do it, and then when I came, I saw how interested everyone was.

What she’s gotten out of it: Going on retreats and gaining skills. I’ve given speeches at events and at school assemblies, campaigned for the right to organize.

How it’s made a difference: There are about 10 of us in YUC [from Strawberry Mansion] and I don’t think there are any other organizing groups. So at Strawberry Mansion, we got a full-time librarian, new windows, and some new books. When school starts again, we’ll be organizing and having an assembly to explain to students what YUC is.

The hardest part: Our principal. She’s harsh and she doesn’t like YUC. Ever since YUC started trying to fix problems in our school, she got mad. It makes it hard to organize.

Why it’s important: Gaining leadership skills, especially public speaking skills.

Future plans: I want to be lawyer. I know that’s a lot of school, but so what?

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