What Can Schools Learn About Student Voice & Agency from March for Our Lives?

There are ample articles and essays that focus upon the current movement against gun violence in the United States, especially in light of recent events. This is not one of them. It is not a report on the status of that movement, an argument for its merit, or an argument for an alternative. Rather, this is an article about young people’s role as active, engaged, thoughtful citizens.

March for Our Lives (March 24, 2018) is arguably the largest student-led demonstration in the history of the United States. With the partnership and support of the 40 million dollar non-profit, Everytown for Gun Safety, these student organizers rallied over 200,000 participants in Washington D.C. and another 800 demonstrations throughout the United States. Following the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, a group of young people garnered media attention and focused their voice and activism on the specific topic of gun violence and gun laws, quickly deciding and arguing that changing gun laws is what they consider the best way to create schools that are safe for all young people.

Some argue that the most recent school shootings and the subsequent carefully organized campaign for changed gun laws is a turning point for the debate about gun laws in the United States. It may also be a tipping point for something even broader. Namely, this recent event represents an organized student voice unlike anything in recent American history.

In a short but powerful speech from 11-year-old Naomi Wadler at the DC March for Our Lives, she said, “People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It is not true. My friends and I might still be eleven and we might still be in elementary school, but we know… We know life is not equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong.”

Not every 11-year-old has the confidence or skill (although this can be learned) to craft and present such an eloquent speech. Many young people do not choose to focus their effort and energy on a social theme like this. Not every young person expresses this measure of concern or interest in many contemporary issues. Yet, that is not because they lack the right, responsibility, or capacity.

Some argue that it is important to recognize that the impetus for this most recent focused effort comes, in part, from young people in an affluent community who already feel a measure of voice and agency far more than those in many other communities around the United States and throughout the world. That was acknowledged in so many words by some of the young people. Further, the voices and faces that we see in the media are most likely representative of other young people who already believe that their voice matters, and they have the confidence to use it.

However, these are not fixed traits. People can and do learn that their voice matters. They can and do learn to exercise that voice to effect change.

What comes next? Some of the young people speak about the fact that they will use their future power to vote as a tool for creating change in this area. Yet, as active and engaged citizens, they are already effecting change. They are contributing to escalating and focusing public attention on a topic that they believe needs critical and immediate attention. They are influencing others with their words. They are learning how to partner with non-profits and others to organize around a shared vision and goal. They are learning to be powerful, active, and engaged citizens.

One need not be in full (or even partial) agreement with what these young people say. The incredible emotion at this stage of the movement is obviously not adequate to inform carefully considered changes in policy and law that achieve the ultimate goal of safer schools and communities. That requires our best thinking and research, looking at existing research and conducting more as needed. Some might argue that this next stage is, therefore, best left to the adults. The young people can lead with emotion, but when it comes to specific and actionable solutions that bring a high chance of success, many of us again assume that young lack the expertise or insight to contribute.

That would be a grave mistake. Many young people are likely inspired by these recent events, learning that their voice matters. Yet, this is also a time where they are learning that their minds matter too. Their best and deepest thinking matters. Their ability to navigate a complex social and political system matters. Their ability to listen, observe, analyze, look at issues from multiple perspectives, challenge their assumptions, explore a variety of solutions, prototype them, refine them, and propose larger solutions matters as well. In this current March for Our Lives iteration of youth activism, now is the time for young people to not only cry out for justice and change, but to also take a seat at the table when changes are explored, considered, selected, implemented, persistently evaluated, and revised.

This is democratic republic in action, yet there is still question about whether our schools are designed in such a way to actually equip young people for such deep engagement and action in their community, country, and world. Does the our school structure welcome student voice? Does it acknowledge student’s role as partners in learning and creating the best and safest learning community? Or do schools just assume that the adults know best, and the students have the proper role of obeying and conforming?

I am inspired by this recent event to deepen my own research into learning communities that take student voice and agency seriously, communities where young people are not just consulted, but they are leaders and co-creators of these communities. They develop and embrace the skill needed to understand problems and to work together toward finding the best solutions. That is an education that truly equips people for life in a democracy. If you know of such a school or learning community, please let me know about it. I hope to turn this into yet another new research and book project.