A strong ally to public school students and teachers, Dr. Jerusha Conner researches student activism. Her areas of expertise include youth organizing for educational change, student engagement, school reform, trends in education policy, and urban education. She is co-editor, with Sonia M. Rosen, of the book, Contemporary Youth Activism: Advancing Social Justice in the United States.
Students Should March and Then They Should Run
The students who participated in last month’s March for Our Lives carried on a tradition of student-led marches in the nation’s capital that stretches back to 1937, when 3,000 students participated in the first major youth march on Washington, D.C. That march is believed to have helped garner public support and generate political will for the youth programs of The New Deal.
Marching is important. It can shape the national narrative by attracting headlines and demonstrating the energy, determination, and demands of the people. It can invigorate those who turn out and “soften the ground” for policy change.
But as a former youth organizer told me for a study I conducted, “I don’t want to be marching forever… because that’s the only thing I know how to do.” Youth organizers understand that systemic change requires both outside pressure from activists and insider will to respond. Accordingly, some go on to choose careers that enable them to change policy and practice from inside the very systems they targeted as youth organizers.
But, youth do not have to wait until they graduate to assume positions as system insiders. As of 2009, 24 states have laws permitting students to serve on district school boards and 19 states allow students to serve on state boards of education. A growing body of research finds that when students have a voice in school-level decision-making, better decisions result. Student voice has been found to improve instruction, curricular design, teacher-student relationships and to promote more equitable and effective learning environments.
One tangible effect of the Women’s March was the dramatic increase in the number of female candidates running for political office. Perhaps, one outcome of the March for Our Lives and April 20th school walkouts will be more students running for and holding elected office.