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Leaders for change

Teen activists speak on youth organizing and their high school experience

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

It’s noon on a sunny Monday afternoon in the nation’s capitol. The oppressive heat does nothing to suppress the crowd’s enthusiasm as hundreds of teens from around the country mill about on a grassy lawn, yards from the White House.

The gathering is called Youth Speak Out, an event sponsored by the Alliance for Educational Justice, where teens have come to lecture, rap, and talk about the importance of making their voices heard.

Within a few minutes Shania Morris, a member of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) and a soon-to-be ninth grader at the Academy at Palumbo, takes the microphone, and begins talking about the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Students who may violate relatively simple school codes – late arrivals, walking in the hall, unknowingly hauling scissors or cooking utensils in a backpack – are often too quickly dumped over to law enforcement for incarceration and imprisonment,” Morris says.

Many teens like Morris are joining youth organizations because they allow them to rally around important issues and interact with peers who share similar passions. In fact, Christine Kelley-Filkohazi, author of Chimes of Freedom: Student Protest and the Changing American University writes that, “more and more teens are trying to end the image of youth as complacent and unengaged. They want the world to know they are a force to be reckoned with.”

And while being engaged as a youth activist helps the overall community, it probably helps the individual teen even more, research shows.

At a World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (WANGO) conference, Miami-Dade College ProfessorMichael J. Lenaghan presented findings illustrating data on American teens who volunteered just one hour a week. These young people, Lenaghan reported, were 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or engage in destructive behavior. They tended to do well in school, graduate, vote, and be philanthropic as adults.

Philadelphia has two strong, citywide youth organizations, PSU and Youth United for Change (YUC), giving high school students a platform to voice their concerns and create change. Both maintain a prominent presence in the School District of Philadelphia, having helped to change policies and procedures regarding education in the city.

PSU started in 1995. Working for education reform, PSU has engaged in campaigns for school funding, nonviolent schools, and teacher quality. It has 500 student members in seven chapters across District schools including Simon Gratz, West Philadelphia, and Masterman High Schools.

“Right now we are focusing on two main campaigns, a campaign for nonviolent schools as well as a campaign for equitable school funding,” said Megan Williamson, a PSU organizer.

“We have a history of work on whole-school transformation and teacher equity and effectiveness,” she said.

Similarly, YUC, now celebrating its 20th year, identifies education-related issues and develops and implements strategies to address those issues.

There are close to 3,000 YUC members, and 120 of those youth attend weekly meetings at six chapters, including the Kensington high schools, Olney, Edison, and Mastbaum, as well as citywide and “push-out youth” chapters.

This year YUC is working on campaigns regarding career and technical education, small schools, small learning communities, zero-tolerance, and the dropout crisis. The recent opening of the new Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts marked a significant win for a multi-year YUC campaign to create small schools.

The Notebook interviewed three local student activists to see how their involvement has shaped their high school experiences: Morris, Mastbaum High School senior Leslie Ramirez, and South Philadelphia High School graduate Wei Chen.

Shania Morris, 9th grader, Academy at Palumbo

Morris, who joined PSU as an 8th grader at Huey Middle School, said she became interested in the group after hearing about them from her older brother Javier, already a member. He explained to her PSU’s mission to fight for young people’s voices inside of schools and to fight for a good education for everyone.

“I liked the mission and so I started coming to PSU meetings with Javier. I kept coming because I saw that other students were strong leaders who knew so much about the education system, and I wanted to be a leader too,” Morris said.

When the city and press started focusing on the teen flash mob phenomenon last spring, Morris saw her chance to jump in and found herself at 13, leading teens in a ”anti”-flash mob demonstration designed to display a nonviolent spirit in the face of the alleged destructive flash mobs. And Morris said, after that she wanted to continue to speak out, so she joined PSU’s youth-produced radio show “On Blast.” Morris is the host and produces radio stories for the program that airs every Wednesday at 6 p.m. and online at www.onblast.podomatic.com.

Morris believes that youth organizing helped her in middle school and will continue to shape her high school experience, giving her an opportunity to see different perspectives.

“After I joined, I became a more critical thinker. I started thinking about my school and my education from a more ‘big picture’ perspective. Now I am more aware of why some students act out, why teachers teach the way they do…. I understand what causes some of the dynamics in my school more than I did before.”

“I definitely think being a PSU member helped me be a better student and understand and learn more because I question things more and look for solutions to the problems in my schoolwork.”

Now a freshman at the Academy at Palumbo, Morris plans to work on PSU’s campaign for equitable school funding this fall.

“The funding is not equitable; this is a main problem. Even when we have good teachers, it doesn’t make the lack of resources any more bearable,” she said.

Leslie Ramirez, 12th grader, Mastbaum AVTS High School

Mastbaum High School senior Leslie Ramirez joined YUC in her freshmen year.

“I joined because I believe in equality and I feel that all students need a voice in there education,” said Ramirez.

“YUC really impacted my high school experience. Before I joined I didn’t know any of the problems that were going on, and the organization opened up my eyes to everything that was happening behind the scenes,” she added.

“Once I realized what was happening, I wanted to do something about the issues that I cared about, and YUC allowed me to do that effectively.”

Ramirez also attended the Youth Speak Out event in Washington, D.C. and spent most of the summer working with senior leaders, developing trainings for new and younger members. In August, she co-facilitated a weeklong leadership institute that offered an intensive 40-hour training, at the end of which teens received $300 if they faithfully attended.

Ramirez said she wants to use her organizing and training skills in college and beyond, and will probably apply to Albright College and Arcadia University for 2011.

Ramirez’s mom Glenda says she saw her daughter grow up in YUC and is impressed that she didn’t quit or give up.

“Now as a senior I see that she’s probably much better informed about citywide school issues than if she wasn’t a part of YUC. That’s going to open up new opportunities for her when she graduates.”

Wei Chen, 2010 graduate, South Philadelphia High School

For Wei Chen, a recent graduate of South Philadelphia High School, the extreme cruelty of two episodes of violence changed his life and ultimately thrust him into a national spotlight.

“I was quiet and stayed to myself. I would never approach anyone I didn’t know,” explained Wei of his freshman year at South Philly.

But Chen’s quiet manner proved too difficult to maintain in a school where violence had erupted among students.

In 2008 five Asian students were attacked on the subway and in 2009 about 30 Asian students were injured in a series of assaults by an angry group of students, most of them right on school grounds at South Philly High.

Chen said he was moved to do something after both incidents.

Chen, the son of a truck driver, came to Philadelphia from China in 2007. He said he spoke no English, but “I was happy to start to school, but soon after I got here, I felt lonely. Really alone. Even with other Asian kids ….Chinese kids. No one talked to me. No one told me anything,” he said.

During the first weeks of his freshmen year, several students punched him in his face as he stood at his locker. Unable to identify his attackers, Chen kept his head down and tried to fit in. Then, the following year, the subway attack occurred, inciting Chen to do something about the violence that seemed to be escalating.

“The adults, the administrators knew what was happening [but] they did nothing to stop the kids,” Chen explained.

Realizing the system must change, Chen started tentatively organizing Asian students, with a one-day boycott. That was followed by forming a new group, the Chinese American Student Association (CASA), an organization that addressed the lack of a support system for new Chinese immigrants and the cultural ignorance that existed in the school’s student body.

The association became the vehicle new Chinese students needed to learn the social codes of this urban high school. CASA offered a welcoming safety net as the Chinese students ate lunch together, learned English, and walked home in groups.

Then came the now infamous 2009 attacks on Asian students.

Chen, a native Mandarin speaker who learned English on the fly, was pulled into action again. This time he called adult organizers in the Asian community for help. Within 48 hours of the incident, Chen found himself leading 50 youth from many different Asian nations in a eight-day school boycott and a well-publicized march to the District central office that brought in hundreds of supporters.

“My parents at first did not want me to do this,” he offered. “But I told them I had to. It was not just about me, their son. It was about freedom, establishing the freedom we have in America. They understood.”

Chen says his courage to engage the administration and his family helped him grow in ways he never thought he would and being a student activist provided a wealth of experiences too.

Last March Chen won the Princeton Prize for Race Relations, and with it a $1,000 cash prize.

The prize honors high school students who perform exceptional work to improve race relations in their communities. It is given annually to one or two students in each of 23 regions around the country.

Now a first-year student at the Community College of Philadelphia, Chen said, “I went back to check on them.” After seeing his old school making a fresh start, Chen says he breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m not bitter about the incident. It wasn’t just about race, it was about new kids and American kids – Americans that didn’t know anything about us,” he said in halting English.

“If I kept quiet this would go on and on. Things look good now,” he says, explaining the effort was worth it.

“Right now I just want to improve my English. I don’t know what I want to do in the future but I like the idea of law … becoming a lawyer … and working as a community organizer.”