Spotlight on Student Activism

Adults often say they are preparing the world for the time when their children inherit it.

But in a stunning turnaround, American children are demanding change before the world is theirs. Their community service is blossoming into activism, effecting change not just in the lives of their neighbors, but at the national policy level as well.

School advisers can play a crucial role by channeling student energy into productive advocacy and cogent messaging that gets heard by policymakers.

“Their arguments are based on logic and pathos,” says Tania McNaboe, National Honor Society co-adviser at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, CT, whose students protested a state budget standoff. “They’re not whining. It isn’t a bunch of kids saying, ‘We want badminton.’ It’s these kids saying, ‘Why can’t you solve this? Why are you fighting and hurting us?’”

The Evolution of Activism

McNaboe found that her students have been well-prepared in “an environment that supports activism, in a community where they value the idea of doing something.” Discussions of social challenges often come up in classes, and students’ involvement in outside activities builds the networks crucial to organizing. One of her students encouraged his peers from Boys State to attend the budget protest.

“That’s creativity,” she says. “That’s saying ‘I want to do this, but where can I go in different directions and connect the dots and make this more powerful?’ It’s authentic learning.”

Today’s high school students are adopting the mantle of changemakers that college students mastered long ago. Divya Tulsiani, Student Government Organization (SGO) student advocate and a junior at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York, says that social media empowers them with the dual abilities of knowing what’s going on and instantly connecting to peers.

After the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Tulsiani conjured those powers to help a Florida friend write a speech for a walkout and to plan a cyber conference between that friend’s student government and the legal outreach council she organized at her school.

“We’re trying to collaborate with their school and work toward seeing how we can broaden our network of support, and see how we can make not only our New York City community better, but their recently wounded communities in Florida better,” Tulsiani says.

McNaboe watches students struggle with stress and the idea that success hinges on grades and money. She became an NHS adviser to help students “see how much power and strength they had, even at their age, and to help them see that voice and tap into their courage in order to make themselves heard.”

“They don’t have resilience, and a lot of times we get resilience when we reach out and help others, and we recognize that we’re not alone,” McNaboe says.

The Road to Activism

Kyle Morrell and his classmates were excited about their senior year, but in the fall of 2017, they were shocked to enter a school without clubs or sports. A lingering state budget standoff meant “not having the experiences we expected,” says Morrell, president of the NHS chapter at Lewis S. Mills High School.

The idea for a protest march at the state capitol “was just born” from discussions about the situation, he says. All their lives, they had been taught the value of teamwork but were “not seeing it pan out in adult life,” Morrell says. The successful Sunday march drew about 200 students urging compromise over political intractability. “We were being challenged, and this was our way of reacting,” he explains. “Why can’t this issue be solved? We’re high schoolers. We can figure out that something needs to be done. Why can’t anyone else?”

The sudden burst of activism presents educators and students with teachable moments around long-simmering issues, says Miguel Arias, chief information officer for the Fresno Unified School District in California. “The debate over gun control has been here for a long time,” he says. “The debate around immigration reform has been here for a long time. Our students have been struggling to make sense of it all and what their role is in these important debates across the country.”

Tulsiani found her activist voice after her freshman year, when a Georgetown University Law School professor addressed the importance of legal education and the lack of political participation by high school students at a summer program.

She founded a club on teaching classmates their constitutional and democratic rights. It soon grew into an initiative that now plans assemblies and town hall meetings on topics including search-and-seizure rights, planning peaceful protests, and even some myth-busting about the extent of free speech.

To critics who malign student activism, Tulsiani says, “The whole point of why schools are around is to make productive members of society. That includes teaching them how to participate in politics and democracy, and how to use their voice responsibly and effectively.”

In organizing the Connecticut budget protest, Morrell found not only his voice, but his leadership capabilities. “It helped my public-speaking skills, my strategies for putting things together, and for organizing big groups of people,” he says. “Those aren’t skills you learn until you’re doing them.”

Trying, Failing, and Achieving: The Role of Advisers

The power of advisers who give their students safe places to try and sometimes fail is evident in confident high school and college student leaders nationwide, Tulsiani says. Conversely, too many young adults don’t vote and “don’t understand the value of participating in the political process because they’re not trained to. When high school students are taking to the streets and standing up to a cause that’s so close to their hearts, this is a moment in history because that’s what increases student participation in the political process.”

Morrell says McNaboe and other staff offered “a lot of advisement” around organizing the budget protest. At McNaboe’s original suggestion, Morell researched the logistics of a march. With that demonstration of intent in hand, “she gave me room to explore. I don’t think I would have gotten this far without Mrs. McNaboe.”

While providing guidance and serving as sounding boards, advisers should stay neutral on topics, “as long as the students aren’t harming anyone,” McNaboe says. Her administration has adopted the same philosophy. “So long as students are safe in what they’re doing, it’s pretty much about letting them figure it out.”

A neutral stance teaches students about civil discourse, because learning to disagree respectfully is a “skill needed in any field,” Tulsiani says. “The adviser should be supportive of that discussion-centered environment. That is politics. That is democracy right there.”

The Walkouts Equation

Walkouts are a time-honored protest tool, meant to disrupt while showing solidarity. Their very nature presents educators with a dilemma: Support student expression or discourage disruption to the school day? Add the imperative of safety, and school administrators, advisers, and teachers must devise thoughtful approaches that balance all considerations.

Walkouts offer opportunities to collaborate with students on channeling anger into actionable plans, Arias says. In a statement, Fresno USD Superintendent Bob Nelson said the district supports the right of peaceful protest, “but is also concerned about the safety of students, should they leave campus.” So, school personnel are working with student groups “to identify alternatives to a walkout” that ensure safe campus places for expression.

In 2017, Fresno USD and its students created a Dream Resource Center to support the district’s hundreds of DACA Dreamers buffeted by political wrangling. After the Parkland shooting, social science teachers at one Fresno USD high school devised a curriculum for discussing gun safety and the Second Amendment, with opt-outs for students who didn’t want to participate. Plans were also underway to invite elected officials to a forum.

“We’re trying to help students understand that beyond expressing their frustration, there is a next step in this,” Arias explains.

In Virginia, Arlington Public Schools supported brief, on-campus walkouts in the wake of the Parkland shooting, to “teach our students how to actively engage in civic conversations and the importance of being engaged in our democratic process,” Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy said in a statement. Murphy outlined that students without advanced parental permission for a late-April school-day walkout during prime testing season were to be marked with an unexcused absence.

“We don’t want to deprive our students from feeling they could participate, but we also felt we needed some guidelines,” says Assistant Superintendent of School and Community Relations Linda Erdos. Students are seeing “how elections can impact their lives,” so advocacy that remains “respectful and appropriate for the classroom” has become ingrained into their learning.

The district’s policy has been “very well received by the board members and by our families,” Erdos says. “The families recommend and are encouraging students to get involved because they understand this is what is needed for young people to find something that inspires them or instigates their interest.”

NHS Pillars and Community Service

Activism is “absolutely” community service, harnessing the power to act at the sight of “something in our world that we know should be changed,” McNaboe says. “I would argue that activism is a huge form of community service.” In fact, her students got community-service credit for organizing their budget protest.

Activism is “one of the most powerful forms of community service,” agrees Tulsiani. “What better way to serve your community than to stand up for the people who might not be able to?”

Issuing credits should depend on the activity, Tulsiani adds. Active organizing should count, but simply joining a protest should not. “The point of activism is when students feel passionate and take steps to identify and address the problem,” she says. Going “numbers-centered” and doling out credits for passive involvement “takes away that power.”

When pondering the question of activism’s fit within the four pillars of NHS, McNaboe decided it could work within three or four of the different categories, but she says it falls most naturally under character. “Character comes to mind first because you’re practicing what you preach,” she says. “Let’s make the world a better place. Character is what people do when no one is looking.”

The budget protest of her NHS members, for instance, “took a lot of courage. They were speaking up to adults, and their whole life, they’ve been told to listen to adults.”

Interestingly, McNaboe’s NHS president, Kyle Morrell, put activism under the pillar McNaboe ranked last—scholarship. “We learn the tools we need to be an activist,” he says. “It’s all about the different perspectives and how it all comes together.”

The Evolution of Community Service

Morrell believes the protest at Lewis S. Mills High School might have made a difference. The budget bill passed. The school year “continued in a normal manner.” In a show of school-year unity, protest signs hung on the school walls for months. His favorite said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change.”

As educators deal with the waves of activism, Arias suggests “putting ourselves in the shoes of our students and figuring out what they need. We sometimes forget that our kids see and hear everything and are more sophisticated than we assume. They are struggling with things at a deeper level than we appreciate.”

Social media makes today’s mass slayings and political upheavals much more personal than past tragedies, Arias asserts. Detailed profiles of lives lost or impacted help young people relate to someone who was like them—perhaps LGBT, or a volleyball star, or anyone who isn’t a nameless DACA Dreamer, but “Joe next door.” “It’s not a black-and-white world we’re living in when it comes to finding ways for kids to express themselves,” he says.

Social media also has the power to broadcast tragedy as it unfolds, stripping away the abstract veneer that clouded past debates, McNaboe says. It’s time to stop underestimating our students and help them find happiness through involvement, she says.

“I have so much faith in the ability of these kids to help change the world that I don’t see among adults,” she says. “We’ve been trying to control everything they do and put everything in neat data packages. Now the pendulum is swinging backwards, and we need to hear what they have to say.”


M. Diane McCormick is a writer based in Pennsylvania.