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.


While COVID-19 has barred me from entering and learning in a school-building-based environment, I still have the resources to learn from home. And just because I’m at home learning in front of a screen doesn’t mean that I can’t have as rich of an educational experience as when I was going to school in-person.
I am a sophomore in high school and a foster youth. My experience in foster care and having to move to multiple schools has prepared me for situations where I need to adapt to rapid changes in my environment. But even so, I was unprepared for the completely new way of learning that is expected of me during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The adjustment to online school is difficult for all students. I am an AP student with a 4.07 grade point average and at the beginning of the year, I was taking three classes across three different software platforms. The learning curve that came with it was aching...
Understanding the different motivations behind Black Lives Matter, initiatives to defund police, ending foreign wars and even developing more transparency in government should be important to every high school student today. It really is up to our generation to combat this toxic environment and encourage more students to engage in meaningful learning through civil discourse.
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
Students’ lives are far more complicated than a letter, and a pass/fail system allows teachers to recognize this and utilize a system that understands how different aspects of a student’s life can reduce their educational abilities, which makes them look like a poor student on paper. A pass/fail system minimizes these extraneous disparities and still properly educates students.
To promote meaningful learning during COVID-19, teachers should not try to replicate in-person instruction online. In my experience, the way to promote meaningful learning is to adapt instruction in a way that recognizes the unique circumstances that we’re in.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has had harsh negative effects on all people — especially teenagers. Feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety are imminent when shut away from friends and other peers for elongated periods of time.
My best friend told me that one of our friends was sending her suicidal text messages and that she didn’t know what to do. I knew that we didn’t have the right expertise to really help our friend...
We need to recognize that schools aren’t doing enough to meet the mental health needs of students, and we need adults to take the lead.
A new stigma around mental health has awakened because of the COVID-19 lockdowns. Everyone’s mental health has been impacted in one way or another, but the fear of speaking out about it is stronger than before.
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.
To the students who may not have these adult leaders or mentors readily available to them, I encourage you to reach beyond your comfort zones and find a safe place to be able to make decisions.
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.
Black students in America are facing an invisible threat that extends beyond the pandemic. This threat is widespread and prevalent, yet not as overt as the threats they face of police brutality and hate crimes.
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.
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Reflections on the #ListenToYouth Series

bmIn March of this year, the advocate in me felt hopeless. I watched college students whisked away from their campuses in uncertainty, K-12 students thrust into virtual learning and educators at a standstill in the midst of all of the adjustments. I watched small businesses in my area close their doors. And if that was not enough, we had a summer filled with nationwide civil unrest. As these problems converged and compounded, I felt as though I failed those that I represent: Black women, students of historically black colleges and universities, and youth.

But after reading the letters from young people published as part of the “Dear Adult Leaders: #ListenToYouth” series, I am hopeful and optimistic about our future. I have seen each youth writer take a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. I have seen each of them create avenues for improvement from the struggle we call 2020.

Having served on many advisory boards and in various student government positions, I thought I was an expert in advocating on behalf of youth. But from these letters over the last five weeks, my eyes have been opened to the perspectives of youth from different age groups, backgrounds and experiences from across the country that all share the desire to be a valued voice in decision-making. In this series, three powerful messages stood out to me.

1. Students represent different ages, backgrounds and perspectives, but they all share a desire to contribute to decision-making — and have real, actionable recommendations.

Over the past few weeks, we have heard realistic suggestions from youth writers. From making our current Eurocentric curriculum more representative of our country’s diverse citizenry to having student advisory boards in school systems across the country, the recommendations presented by young people aim to give those affected a voice in the matters most dear to them.

An issue close to me is the need for school systems to provide teachers with adequate training to understand the impact of trauma on student behaviors and how to help students with adverse childhood experiences. Many students may have lost a loved one to COVID or have seen the horrid videos of police brutality this year. These difficult events can definitely have an impact on their classroom performance.

This past summer, I was an intern for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. With increasing coronavirus cases and deaths, as well as the rise of racial tensions, some days it was hard for us to focus. But because we had leadership that understood how issues outside of the workplace affected the productivity of the group, we implemented initiatives like “Freedom Fridays” where we could have a day to not only breathe but express our emotions about the world around us. Every young person needs their own “Freedom Friday” of sorts. These letters affirm that we must put a stop to the assumption that issues beyond the four walls — or virtual boxes — of the classroom do not affect students’ performance within them. We cannot reduce our youth to test scores or enrollment numbers; they are our future and we must treat them as such.

2. Youth don’t dodge the big problems. From racism to mental health, this generation wants to and is prepared to have hard, honest conversations.

Too often, challenging topics like racism and mental health awareness are brief, optional conversations. Topics like the civil rights movement and how to handle stress and anxiety are often discussed for about 30 minutes in the classroom before moving on to the next task of the day. But this generation is demanding an end to that. We have recognized that these issues affect students on a daily basis and deserve more attention from the education system.

One recommendation I support is having a Black history curriculum that does not just address slavery and trailblazers like Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and President Barack Obama. There are many overlooked examples of African-Americans turning the trials of racism and bigotry into triumph and testimony.

Growing up, my grandmother always had a Black history program at her church. Each year, I would help her in some way, whether it was cutting out pictures for educational posters, or helping her set up the sanctuary on a Saturday afternoon. One of my favorite Black history month memories is when my church’s youth ministry allowed us to act as often overlooked figures in African-American history. Activities like these are where I learned about Women’s Rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B. Wells. As a student at Hampton University, an HBCU, Black history is all around me. Our campus houses the Emancipation Oak, which is the site of the first official reading in the South of the Emancipation Proclamation and one of our most notable alumni is Booker T. Washington. During my freshman year, I was required to take African-American history. Many of my classmates’ eyes were opened because it was the first time they were taught in such depth and beyond the textbook about their own history.

These letters affirm the desire for a curriculum that does not just share what makes America seem perfect, but includes the country’s entire — sometimes ugly — history. This history is one that many do not want to address, but by facing our history honestly and holistically, we understand our present much more. We cannot leave it to the world and social media to teach youth the truth. That is the job of the education system.

3. It is critically important for decision-makers to solicit a diversity of youth voices.

It is critical to have my generation in the room. We are unafraid and unapologetically ourselves. We do not take no for an answer without at least a conversation. We turn opposition into opportunity. And those qualities are something that every decision-making body needs.

In the education system and nonprofit sector, it is our duty to uplift and improve the lives of those we represent. What better way to do that than giving them a seat at the table to help us help them?

I think Nyché Tyme Andrew said it best in her letter: “[My school district] is one of the most diverse in the country, but students of color are constantly being let down.” Students of color are being disproportionately affected by policies and practices, but many districts are not taking the first step to consult with them and that is the issue.

Similarly, Azariah “Z” Estes stated in her letter that “students are the foundation of schools, so it’s critical that we have a seat at the table.” And that is simply the point we are trying to get across in this letter series. There would be no school without children to teach, so the education system should want to hear from us. All of us.

Often, superintendents and principals choose their “best and brightest” students to serve on their advisory committees, but we must have all students at the table. Not just the students constantly receiving awards and getting good grades, but also the students that feel that they are left out of these spaces who are just as, if not more, affected by the issues in their district.

In many spaces, I am a minority on several fronts: African-American, female and an HBCU student. This combination of characteristics used to frighten me. I used to wonder how I would be received in male-dominated spaces or in rooms with my colleagues from predominantly white institutions. That was until I realized that my unique experience as a Black woman at Hampton University, from Suffolk, Virginia, was one that was valuable and needed to be heard: My story of being a great-granddaughter of a Negro League Baseball player (who was not allowed on the same field as white people), now in board rooms with some of the country’s most well known CEOs; My story of how being raised in church led to my passion for giving and helping others; My story of having my support system push me toward greatness every step of the way; My story of how advocating for my fellow Hamptonians has paved the way for me to represent youth.

I am passionate about environmental justice because in many predominantly Black areas in my city, we have factories that emit pollution that disproportionately affects individuals of color. I am passionate about diversity in the education system because I know first-hand how important it is to see someone that looks like you. Every experience is a puzzle piece that built who I am today and plays a role in how I advocate for others.

This year when I was asked by the Nansemond-Suffolk Branch of the NAACP, to speak on how voting impacts environmental justice, and when staff at America’s Promise asked me how I was feeling as a Black woman in America, I was confident that I was not living for myself, I was living to represent those who are not given these platforms. And that is simply what every youth leader is trying to do: To be the voice for the voiceless and hope that they can be heard.

All a youth leader could ever ask for in these spaces is to have the opportunity to have our unique stories embraced and appreciated. On behalf of all of the youth writers: Thank you for allowing us to be seen and heard.


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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Wednesday Aug 26, 2020 - Friday Dec 25, 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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