Students hold up sign in support of a safe community. Walkout was held from 6th hour until the end of the school day. (Lilia Gonzalez)
Students hold up sign in support of a safe community. Walkout was held from 6th hour until the end of the school day.

Lilia Gonzalez

Student empowerment brings attention to social change

Voices call for reform

January 12, 2022

From student-led walkouts to open discussion forums, activism at Park has become more prevalent. With several important issues arising and becoming prominent, students are raising their voices to fight for change.

Student advocacy gives rise to conversation

With an increase in student activism at Park, senior Anna Overall said the collective efforts of students have far-reaching impacts. 

“The youth definitely are starting to realize that we play a very important role in society. Older people sometimes tend to shut out youth, but the more that you branch (out) together and the more you start to work together, that definitely makes a really big impact,” Overall said. 

According to writing tutor Addie Welch, students taking the lead in advocacy not only strengthens students themselves, but also builds a sense of greater community and connection within Park. 

“Seeing students advocate for themselves by building community with other students, talking about their experiences and finding similarities between their stories is an important way (to advocate),” Welch said. “You’re advocating for yourself by understanding your own story, but also receiving and giving support to other students in a way that can strengthen someone.”

Freshman Alicia Mainjeni, who is involved in multiple advocacy clubs including Girls United and Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR), said student-run events and groups inspire discussion and action among people. 

“It helps people have an idea of what their goals are and pin-pointing what they believe in. It gives them a chance to talk about things in a setting where other people are either passionate about, or want to be more passionate about issues,” Mainjeni said. “Joining clubs that help advocate for these things … are what makes a difference.”

The actions that students are pushing for cannot be met without collaboration and communication from all levels, according to Spanish teacher Hanna Anderson. 

“Change has to come both from the top and the bottom. Teachers and staff have to support, (and) have to promote advocacy change,” Anderson said. “But in the end, it’s students who have to make it happen. We need that collaboration between teachers, administrators, staff and students who, ultimately, are the ones who are going to bring change.” 

For Welch, the insight that students bring into situations makes them a powerful voice in the conversation.  

“It’s a lifelong journey learning how to stand up for yourself and for other people, and what you believe is right — young people, in particular, can be really strong advocates because they often have a unique perspective on the world and are less likely to go along with the dominant culture which can be oppressive,” Welch said. “Young people are not being indoctrinated into that so easily.”

Student-led walkouts enhance voices

Although student activism takes shape in many forms, walkouts have been one of the common ways that students have voiced their opinions about important issues. From national conversations to concerns at Park, students have been confronting the administration and hosting safe spaces to address issues including gun violence, racism and sexual assault. 

In the past, spreading the word about protests and walkouts has been difficult, but according to  sophomore Lola Powers, due to social media, the effects of the walkouts have been amplified.  

“When there’s a whole bunch of kids standing outside of a school going against something, that speaks volumes. This year, we’ve really been using social media as a tool whereas, in past years, it’s just by word of mouth,” Powers said. “I remember when I was in sixth grade there was a walkout, and it didn’t spread as far as the recent walkout we had because social media wasn’t being used as much.”

Walkouts and other student-led events are usually held during school hours and while that may decrease time inside the classroom, for English teacher Mary Knudson, the learning opportunities at walkouts are equally as educational for students. 

“What I mainly deal with and try to get across to students is stories, language and empathy. What’s a better way to get stories than to be at a walkout where people are sharing their stories that are immediately relevant to you and to the school?” Knudson said. “To me, that is an educational experience akin to an English class. It’s not taking away from any kind of instruction, it’s actually enhancing instruction.”

(Walkouts are) just a starting point that only creates awareness. We need to come to the classroom and talk about it — address the issue one-on-one, in small groups and in class discussions”

— Hanna Anderson

School administration cannot prohibit students from speaking out against issues, but there are other limiting factors as to how far the protests can go, according to assistant principal Jessica Busse. Busse said it’s necessary to understand the limits to what both students and administration can do.

“(Due to) free speech, the only limit is if it becomes a disruption to the educational facility,” Busse said. “Students walking out of class does not prohibit other students from learning — if (student) activism is not prohibiting others from learning, then it’s fine. If the walkout creates a situation where other people aren’t able to learn or access learning, then that becomes an issue.”

Overall said she has seen the interest in student advocacy grow this year, due to a shift at Park. 

“Tons of people come in and want to work and want to learn — not even just in activism, just in general at our school,” Overall said. “(At) the walkout there were a lot of … voices being heard and a lot of people coming out about their stories.”

However, Anderson said walkouts on their own are only effective temporarily and that in order to make a lasting difference, dialogue needs to continue elsewhere.

“(Walkouts are) just a starting point that only creates awareness. We need to come to the classroom and talk about it — address the issue one-on-one, in small groups and in class discussions,” Anderson said. “In the end, we (need to) give the floor to students to bring out their opinions, their ideas and provide space and time to talk about certain issues in the classroom.”

Furthering discussion towards progress

Implementing the issues brought up into classrooms is just one way that students and staff hope walkouts and forums can be a productive outcome of student advocacy. While Knudson said she feels that walkouts and other advocacy initiatives are beneficial, she said she hopes to see those important discussions translate to school-wide conversations that include administration. 

“I wish there was more that we were doing as teachers (and) that admin was doing to open dialogues more because while the walkout happened, there was not a lot of follow up or support spaces that I’ve seen, which (is) kind of disappointing, we need to do better as the adults of the building,” Knudson said. “That was time for us as adults to make the next move to keep it going, to foster that and to keep talking.”

Overall said during these conversations, although having administration present can be valuable, there are times when these open spaces should be free from intrusions. 

“A lot of times (administration) feel like they need to be there and they need to be present. There’s different times where we do want them to hear our voices, but I think also (it’s important) having people be more comfortable in the space,” Overall said. 

For Mainjeni, student voices are influential and moving forward she believes that their suggestions should play a key role at Park. 

“Rather than just saying, ‘hey, I’m going to listen to you guys,’ also include and really take into consideration what the students are saying, even if that might sound like a stretch compared to other things,” Mainjeni said. “Really take into consideration what the students think because just saying you’re going to listen isn’t enough.”

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