Dear Adult Leaders: #ListenToYouth

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Now, More Than Ever, We Must #ListenToYouth

At the end of high school, with years of school leadership roles under my belt, I thought I knew what it meant to advise adults on the concerns of young people. But it wasn’t until I got even more involved with youth leadership over the last three years that I realized how much more meaningful “youth voice” can be — and must be — in the conversations that influence programs and policies that directly affect those young people. 
 
Never was this more apparent to me than in March 2020 when I, like so many students across the country, was forced to leave my campus community and transition to remote learning. The chaos of moving to remote instruction was felt at every level of education from Pre-K to Ph.D. programs. New policies were being established left and right as knee-jerk reactions to the constantly evolving nature of the coronavirus pandemic. While many of these policies were likely well-intentioned, almost all were made by adults without the input of young people. In many cases, this omission of young people’s perspectives has resulted in remote and other approaches to instruction that are failing to meet the . If we are to continue with remote instruction, it is imperative, now more than ever, that educators and administrators solicit the input of the young people they serve. 

Gabe A.

In August, America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of hundreds of national nonprofits, businesses, civic leaders, and educators concerned with improving the lives of young people in this country, and The 74 co-hosted a youth town hall about the return to school in the age of COVID-19.I was shocked to learn that the majority of the students present said their schools had not considered their opinions on the matter. When I joined America’s Promise’s Board of Trustees two years ago, I thought I had a good idea of what the role would look like: The adults in the room would guide the conversation, and the other youth leaders and I would give them a thumbs-up once a quarter. It wouldn’t be that deeply involved, but it would be a nice thing to add to my resume and would provide me with a handful of good networking opportunities. I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong. 

In my first meeting, CEOs and nonprofit leaders literally made space for me to have a seat at the table. They said, “You’re part of our team now, in every way.” I had a voice, a vote, and value.

My experience over the past two years has been powerful. Never before have I felt like my input as a young person was taken so seriously. Whether it was contributing to the completely youth-led State of Young People Summit in 2019 or contributing to decision-making regarding the allocation of mini-grants to youth leaders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, young people are in the driver’s seat. 

This is how it should be, universally, across America.

To ensure that young people’s perspectives are considered in conversations about how schools can handle this unprecedented year, America’s Promise and The 74 have teamed up to publish a series of letters from young people to decision-makers in their communities. Over the next four weeks, high school students from across the country will be writing open letters addressing the issues that matter most to them. These letters will cover a number of topics ranging from supporting students’ and teachers’ mental health to addressing race and racism in schools to providing meaningful learning opportunities in a blended learning environment.

The aforementioned topics arose in the youth town hall as priority issues for young people. Above all else, though, one call to action was abundantly clear: young people want decision-makers to take their ideas and experiences into consideration. Here are some messages I took away from the town hall, which serve as the foundational principles of this letter-writing campaign:

Young people are the experts of their own experiences. I graduated high school in 2017, yet I don’t think I could adequately describe what it’s like to be a high school student today. That’s how quickly the experience of being a young person changes. School and community leaders should not assume that they understand what the youth of today need.

Young people offer valuable perspectives. A business would never make a major decision about a service or product without gauging the opinions of the consumers of that product. In fact, they spend months conducting research and holding focus groups to make sure they’re making the most informed decision possible. Why shouldn’t schools and youth-serving organizations do the same? Listen to young people, and they’ll tell you what they need. 

Young people have the capacity to handle more than you might think. Adult leaders will often justify the lack of youth input in their decision making, arguing that young people don’t have the capacity to handle the same issues as adults. This past year, young people have navigated a pandemic and the rise in protests in response to systemic racism and anti-Black violence at the hands of the police. Young people are also leading national and international movements, from climate change to school safety. Not only do young people have the capacity to understand the world around them, they have the capacity to lead it.

So where do we go from here? The answer is quite simple: listen to and support young people. We invite you to follow along with this four-week campaign, in which young people will call for specific actions by leaders in their and other communities.

My experience of having my voice heard should be the rule rather than an exception. We are entering a crucial period for our country, and it is essential that young people not be left behind. When it comes to the experiences of young people, nothing for us should be designed without us. 

We hope you’ll bookmark and follow either this page or The74Million.org/ListenToYouth.

Gabe Abdellatif is a senior at Pomona College and a former member of the America’s Promise Alliance Board of Trustees.


Acknowledging the importance of youth participation and giving them a platform does not diminish the authority of educators and school leaders. Instead, collaboration between adults and young people can help strengthen relationships between students and adults because students feel like their voices and contributions are valued and it only further strengthens our systems.
This piece is part of “Dear Adult Leaders: #ListenToYouth,” a four-week series produced in collaboration with The 74 to elevate student voices in the national conversation as schools and districts nav
Young people should be included on community boards or committees so that there is a voice for us in decision-making at a city and local level. Oftentimes, the problems you encounter and decisions you make tend to affect us more than you realize, yet it seems like you forget that we have thoughts and opinions, too.
As classrooms and our nation become more diverse, it is essential that schools become more inclusive and representative in how they teach our shared history. To do so, state boards of education like ours should adopt social studies standards that encourage an honest, inclusive teaching of our nation’s history and that highlight the contributions and experiences of people of color.
The ever-increasing movement to depoliticize schools is ultimately a disservice to our society with inherently hypocritical goals. Let there be no mistake; schools are political. They always have been. What they teach is political. Who they teach is political. Who they don’t teach is political. Everything down to the when and where is political. And there is not a more significant example of this than racism in America.
Last year, my closest friend faced perpetual racial abuse at school. Teammates called him a “cocky n***er” in the locker room, and he was ostracized by football coaches as they practiced after METCO buses (Boston’s integration program) had left. The overwhelming distress and his countless failed attempts to receive support drove him out of Newton North High School. Make no mistake — this is racism. This is a direct removal of integrated Black students from our school.
I had my first Asian teacher this year after 11 years in our public school system. I didn’t quite recognize this fact or its weight at first — to have a teacher who looked like me. But as the year unfolded, I found myself able to open up about societal and family stress that had often left me feeling isolated with no one who could fully understand the complexities of the pressures I was navigating.
I have been working to reevaluate the curriculum at my school by working in a collaborative group between students and staff called the Equity Team. I’ve been talking specifically to English teachers to see how we can shift the curriculum so that it incorporates honest lessons about our country’s history.

Virtual Youth Townhall on the Return to School 

On Wednesday, August 26 at 2:00 PM ET, America’s Promise Alliance and The 74 hosted a Youth Townhall to share youth thoughts about the logistics of school reopening, as well as how school leaders can engage young people in decision-making once school is back in session. Additionally, given the growing national conversations about racial justice, youth shared insights and advice for school leaders on how schools should provide opportunities to talk and learn about race and racism.

Regardless of whether your school is returning in-person, virtually, or a combination, this was an important opportunity to share your insight to inform school, district, and community leaders’ decisions this year and beyond. 

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August 26, 2020 | Letter Campaign November 10, 2020
Virtual
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Youth Panel

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Virtual Town Hall Recording

Virtual Town Hall Recording

Resources

The State of Young People during COVID-19

The ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis looms large, creating deep and disparate consequences for young people and their families. Our nationally representative survey of high school youth reveals their perceptions of the pandemic’s impact on their learning and their lives. The findings suggest that students are experiencing a collective trauma, and that they and their families would benefit from immediate and ongoing support.

The Pulse of Gen Z in the Time of COVID-19

As part of DoSomething.org’s response to COVID-19, we’ve kicked off an ongoing survey to gauge how Gen Z is handling the crisis. With tens of thousands of responses from our members (ages 13–25) from every state in the country, it’s clear young people are feeling the impact deeply.

HELP SPREAD THE WORD

click on one of the tweets below to post on your own Twitter feed:

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CALLING ALL MIDDLE /HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS! Join @americaspromise & @the74 on 8/26 at 2pm ET for a Virtual Youth Townhall on the Return to School to share your perspectives & advice for school leaders as school starts this fall: https://bit.ly/2YbEiOp

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This event is made possible through the generous support of Pure Edge, Inc.

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