By Valentino Indelicato, DemocracyReady NY Youth Organizer for New York Civic Learning Week 2023
Channeling a voice loud enough for people to hear is challenging, especially for youth. Imagine trying to speak to hundreds of people, with no idea as to how any of them will respond, or trying to educate them on topics needed to improve the state of their community. These challenges seem difficult enough, but, for youth, the one common factor is the weak spotlight shone upon student voices. In March this year, I met that challenge, hosting a panel in front of a webinar audience I couldn’t see, using my voice, and interviewing students like myself about speaking out in their schools and communities.
To have student voices represented is to give students a say on locking bathroom doors, the level of security within the school, or the structure of budgeting for different departments. All of these major school-based topics primarily affect students, but rarely do we see a single student voice being able to advocate for change. Today, students around the globe, including in New York State, struggle to have their voices heard, and for that reason changes need to happen.
From my experience as a teenager in upstate New York, channeling my voice has been especially difficult, due to the struggle to grab attention from the mentors and administration around me. In Syracuse, New York, spending sixteen years of my life in one place, but jumping from school district to the next, I found it immensely difficult to embrace my voice in a community full of diverging opinions and experiences. After heading into Nottingham High School in 9th grade, I noticed a tremendous number of challenges surrounding the school’s environment, specifically on safety, communication, and relationships. Many of my peers commented on the level of uneasiness in my school due to the administration’s strict solutions to behavior control, with little or no input from the students. Hearing from students all over the school about their experience, I knew I wanted change to happen.
After dedicating a long time in my sophomore year to a thesis and project with peers about the behavior control at Nottingham, we presented it to board members within our school district. Discussing with administration for the first time, I found no immediate result in change around my school. Although this struggle to help students gain a voice failed, I wanted to grow my voice even larger and help others do the same, and that’s why I helped host a youth-led event through the DemocracyReady NY Coalition at the Center for Educational Equity, Teachers College, with peers from across New York in celebration of NY Civic Learning Week titled: Beyond the Vote: Youth Civic Participation from Classroom to Community.
The Importance of Youth
After helping coordinate this event, I interviewed two individuals on topics that deeply focus on involving youth in decision making. The first was Justin Hubbard, a social studies teacher at Salamanca High School, who spoke about how and why schools should center students in many of their decisions. He stated that “If we empower our students more, that will make it so that the community will be more involved with the school and the school will therefore be involved with the community, so that there will be that constant loop.” If schools strengthened students’ voices, they could help change so much more in their community. What’s so important about the voice of the youth is the ability for us to express a modern way of constructing a new input into decisions and create a respected environment for all in a community, and this is what Mr. Hubbard has been trying to accomplish.
On the same panel, another speaker took the spotlight to express her opinion as a young person. Eugenia Bamfo, a high school senior, spoke about her time as a Youth Action Member at Citizens’ Committee for Children of NY. Conversing with her, we focused on ways to increase the level of civic education taught in schools to help amplify students’ decision making. One of her leading points in the conversation was, “if school is this place where you can teach students and influence them in wonderful ways, why aren’t we teaching students how to become advocates, and if this is the future, why aren’t we investing more time to that future to make change?” What many adults, especially in schools, have a hard time understanding is the level of initiative that youth are developing now and will have in the future.
Youth will share a new perspective on civic issues that will lead to change in many ways. They will become policymakers, city council members, advocates, etc. Civic education in schools should give students opportunities to learn about policy at the school level, but also at the a state level, so that it gives students the ability to make a greater impact and make legislative change in the future. A perfect example of student empowerment is shown through Eugenia, being a leader for many in New York, and helping push the Youth Agenda and elevate students’ voices.
It’s hard to understand the impact this new generation of youth will have, but it’s clear that kids around the world have the ability to understand the world we have to face in the future. I experienced so much through the DemocracyReady NY’s New York Civic Learning Week, talking with people I’d never thought I’d encounter, and having that voice to show others how to make that change in our community. At Nottingham High School, I am a part of a club called Superintendent’s Cabinet, which gives students the chance to voice their opinion on school-related issues. This club lets students create a bigger platform for themselves to help others around them. This is what I want for every youth in schools, as well as throughout the world. The ability to use your voice is important in the world we live in today, and the future is in our hands.