“This may not mean anything to somebody who is accustomed to civic action or to somebody who has always recognized the power they have. But for me, being a poor black girl from Baltimore, knowing I helped pass two pieces of important legislation makes me feel invincible.” –Taikira White, The Intersection
Through civic engagement, Taikira White and Dawnya Johnson, high school juniors from Baltimore, learned to advocate for themselves and their peers on issues that impact their daily lives. Both students participate in The Intersection, an organization that helps students from underserved areas in Baltimore attend and complete college, give back to their communities and engage in civic action. By canvassing their neighborhoods, organizing rallies, telling stories and holding press conferences, White and Johnson’s engagement contributed to Maryland’s adoption of the Maryland DREAM Act last year and Governor Martin O’Malley’s Firearm Safety Act this year.
In June 2011, Dawnya’s cousin, her closest friend and mentor, was shot on the streets of Baltimore and died before an ambulance arrived. “I lost hope,” she said, “I came extremely close to dropping out of school…and I didn’t care about anything or anyone, least of all myself.” Since becoming involved with The Intersection, Dawnya transformed herself from “that bad kid,” as her teachers called her, to the honor roll student and community leader she is today.
These two powerful young women recently spoke to staff from the U.S. Department of Education at the “ED Youth Voices: Students Transforming Schools and Communities” policy briefing. We learned how their work has empowered them to be better students and leaders, both inside the classroom and out. “Too often, our voices are overlooked because we are students, because we are not able to vote! We are not roaming black mobs of youth, we are tomorrow’s leaders,” Taikira declared passionately.
Heaven Reda, a recent high school graduate, spoke at the event on behalf of the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) describing how their civic engagement efforts to include student input in official teacher evaluations gave Massachusetts’ students a voice in their education. “There was a huge disconnect,” Reda explained, between what teachers were teaching and what students were actually learning.
BSAC’s campaign, “We’re the Ones in the Classroom: Ask Us!” to address this issue was successful, but told the audience that there is always more we can do. “So often we see a budget as a limit, when there is so much you can do with so little,” she said. “Let a student teach for a day, or help them build a curriculum or a strong student government. There needs to be someone who tells them, look, you are powerful.”
The briefing, organized by ED’s Youth Engagement Team, brought together over 100 ED staff and even more watching via online, to hear the students stories. For the past two years, ED’s Youth Engagement Initiative has worked with young people to better understand their needs and the obstacles to their successes, and ED has used that information to better align federal programs with the needs of young people. Thanks to incredible students like Taikira, Dawnya, and Heaven, our job is made easier as they step up as leaders in their communities and lend young people everywhere a voice in their government.
If you are interested in learning how to engage youth in your school or districts or are already doing that please reach out to the ED Youth Engagement Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elena Saltzman, OCO Intern attending Brown University and Samuel Ryan, Special Assistant and Youth Liaison