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Youth Speak Out at the Atlantic Education Summit

“I’ve always thought that we need to prepare our students for the world, but I’m learning so quickly that we need to prepare the world for our students,” said Christina Cody, a science teacher and founder of the youth health initiative FIT2gether, at the recent Atlantic Education Summit.

Youth panelists at the event proved her right. Educators, journalists, leaders of nonprofits, politicians, presidents of institutions, and many more came together to discuss the future of education, from pre-school through higher education. And throughout the jam-packed, wide-ranging day, the voices that stood out the most were those of young people.

Across a range of issues, young people discussed how they became involved in social change, what activism means to them, and advice they’d give other young people looking to make a difference. 

The first panel of the day featured Keaton Conner, a student at Kentucky’s Marshall County High School who survived the January 23rd shooting at her school. Conner described how the Parkland shooting pulled her out of grief and into action. 

“After the Parkland shooting, seeing these students be so brave so immediately after…I felt this urgency. This isn’t something that I can wait around on,” Conner. 

As Conner began to speak out publicly and organize her fellow students on issues of school safety and gun control, she realized that “activism can be part of my healing process.”

When asked how the idea that “kids are just kids” prevents adults from taking young people seriously, Conner offered a counterpoint: “Whenever you have experienced the feeling of running for your life, in a single instant, you’re not a child anymore…we should be considered survivors.”

Adults and politicians, Conner argued, need to listen and take young people seriously. 

“They should open up the conversation to us, invite us to come speak with them. They don’t have to take action on everything we say, but at least listen to us and take some of our ideas and work with us on that.”

As the debates around Parkland showed, asking adults to take young people seriously is often easier said than done. But Tyler Norris, a junior at Gaffney High School, and Christina Cody, his teacher and the founder of FIT2gether, tackled the question head-on in a panel on Creating Healthy School Environments, moderated by Tanya Tucker, chief of strategic initiatives and partnerships at America’s Promise Alliance. 

Tucker introduced the Together for Healthy and Successful Schools initiative, through which America’s Promise Alliance partners with FIT2gether and other organizations in a shared effort to help more young people lead healthy, successful lives. 

“What if every young person went to a school where they felt safe, engaged, empowered?” Tucker asked. “Where academics were the focus as well as social and emotional development, physical health? Where parents and the broader community felt welcome and engaged to support young people’s success?”  

Norris and Cody had the answer to those questions: Let young people lead. “They know what they need, and they have great ideas,” Cody said.

Her approach bears this out. During a unit on nutrition and wellness in her science class, she saw how alarmed her students were by childhood obesity statistics. So she began to create opportunities for them to lead change in their communities around health––physical, emotional, and psychological. In 2014 she launched the FIT2gether program, which encourages students to help their schools and communities get healthy. Students create brochures with nutrition tips, design easy workouts, and teach health in the wider community. 

That’s how Tyler Norris got involved. He began gradually leading some of those workouts in the community, before taking ownership of the series entirely. “After a while,” he said, “she started putting more and more responsibility on me to be a leader…her leading me was letting me lead myself.”

Tyler’s suggestion to other young people? “Reach out, speak out, and please get involved. If you want change, you have to work and put in the investment.”