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Youth-Led Summit Aims at Amplifying Student Voice


Zak Malamed, founder of Student Voice, left, speaking on a panel (photo: @SusannaDW)

"I can't tell you how many conferences, events, and meetings...I have to go to where there are no students, even though we are talking only about education," said Amanda Ripley at the opening session of this year's Student Voice Live summit in New York City.

Ripley, who is an investigative journalist and the author of the book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, was one of the hundreds of event attendees who share the collective goal of amplifying student voices within the education system. Participants gathered in Manhattan on Saturday, September 20 to engage in a series of discussions on a wide variety of topics. In its second year, the event again had several corporate sponsors, including Dell and Microsoft.

Student Voice is a not-for-profit organization created for students, by students. The organization was founded in May of 2012 by now-Executive Director Zak Malamed, a student at The University of Maryland. Over the past two-plus years, Student Voice has implemented programs that have catalyzed school and community improvement, ensuring that students' voices are more heard when their education is being discussed.

StuVoice, as it is often called, began with Twitter chats, now held each Monday, in which youth lead virtual dialogues (find them at #StuVoice). Past online conversations have touched upon topics such as expanding digital infrastructure to all students, reshaping curricula to make room for entrepreneurship, and reducing barriers to higher education.

The issues addressed by panelists at the summit ran the gamut, including student rights in the classroom, diversity in STEM, and health and wellness both in and out of school. The youth in attendance were from varied backgrounds, ranging from scientists to actors, all of whom were engaged in revolutionizing education from their particular vantage point.

Jaxson Khan, who served as a panelist on the global student movement, is leading the Student Voice Initiative in Canada. In proposing solutions to the agreed-upon problem of limited student say in education policy-making, Khan said, "From the start, it's building a system that's encouraging students to get active and involved and self-directing their own learning." Khan went on to say that students having a sense of ownership of their learning experiences is paramount.

The notion of ownership that Khan highlighted was the common thread that tied the conference's diverse panels together. The absence of that control and independence is familiar to Jordan Howard, who began working on youth advisory boards for nonprofits and corporations when she was 15 in order to claim more agency in her education. At 22, she is now a co-founder of GenYNot and a Dell Youth Innovation Advisor, and the solution she poses in education reform is simple. "Have a conversation," Howard said, when asked how education stakeholders can engage students. "And sometimes, they don't understand that it's that easy. What if we recognized that young people are the experts of their own experiences?"

Nikhil Goyal, a 19-year-old activist and author of a forthcoming book on alternative education, wants to see sweeping change. In expressing a prevailing sentiment among youth activists at the conference, Goyal asserts that "the solution is not top-down; it's bottom-up. It's through the people who are leading this movement and leading social change."

Goyal continued, "It's not just about bringing youth voices to the table, it's about bringing power to young people, giving them more responsibility, giving them privileges and rights, and allowing them to have the freedom to express their voices."

Student Voice is one such example of this work being done, and it is just one among several youth-led initiatives and organizations that have sprung up as a result of the lack of youth voices in discussions about issues that directly affect young people. Youth activism has served as a powerful presence in social movements, evidenced by the turnout of youth at Occupy Wall Street in the past, as well as the recent People's Climate March.

Goyal's advocacy of the bottom-up approach applies to the student voice movement as much as it does to the youth rights movement as a whole. Civic engagement among youth is a global movement that has exerted such influence on Scotland, which allowed 16-year-olds to vote in the referendum on national independence. Other countries that have extended nationwide voting rights to youth under 18 include Austria, Brazil, Nicaragua, Indonesia, and Sudan, among others.

This is largely not the case for Americans. The National Youth Rights Association reports that a total of 12 states allow citizens under 18 to vote in state elections, though often only in primaries or caucuses. Over the last decade, however, 12 other states have seen movements to lower the voting age on both state and local levels.

Amid talk of bills that would invite more youth to participate in local politics, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation last month lowering the minimum age of community board members from 18 to 16. The passage of the bill has met both support and considerable pushback from incumbent community board members, some of whom feel that the work is too hefty for youth. The passage of the bill, however, could potentially allow students to hold a larger stake in policy-making and offers new avenues for youth engagement.

As the New York State general election approaches, education will certainly be among the key issues debated by candidates, as it was in the primaries. Those participating in Student Voice Live are likely to be paying attention and remembering promises made - while also looking to influence the discussion.

Ruby Karp, who just began her first year of high school and was a host of Student Voice Live, has reiterated familiar advice on how to get youth involved in the education conversation: "If you want students to be engaged, engage them."

by Alex-Quan Pham, Gotham Gazette


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