Creating Spaces that Nourish Youth Activism

The week preceding the Thanksgiving Break is a busy one for any school principal. There are evaluations to be completed and parent events that require attention. In my movements through Marbut’s hallways over the last few weeks I’ve encountered two fourth grade students who continue to politely remind me that they would like to meet to revisit a proposal they shared with me in October. Our school recently partnered with TNTP (The New Teacher Project) to enhance the ways we access parental engagement and student voice. A student focus group was convened and students were asked to share ideas about what could be done to improve the school from their perspective. Melissa Jones-Clarke, a TNTP Performance Coach, facilitated the focus group and remarked that the students were “sharp and articulate about what they wanted to accomplish and where they wanted to go in the future”.

In early October they arrived at my office door smiling and asking for “just a moment to discuss an important matter”. The language was so precise and polished that I welcomed the conversation and settled back in my chair to hear what these two fourth graders had to say. While our school has a strict uniform policy, these two 4th grade students proposed a “free dress day” for students to express their individuality. I shared with them that our school model and tradition includes required uniforms. I explained that we had tried to do “Free Dress Fridays” in the past but it became an issue with behavior.

So here we were, weeks later and I was cornered with another request to meet and follow up on the initial meetings. “Ah, yes…I remember. You wanted to discuss the dress code and possibly having a free dress day, correct?” They beamed with pride and replied, “Yes!” I said, well Mondays are really busy, let’s plan to meet tomorrow. Come see me during your Specials time and we can discuss it.” Honestly, I assumed they’d soon forget about their plan to upend our strict dress code for a proposed “free dress” day for students. Tuesday arrived and as I was on my way to do an observation I encountered Alina who smiled and politely reminded me, “Excuse me Mr. Mountain, yesterday you said Mondays were very busy, so we were following up to see if we could possibly meet with you today to discuss our proposal about the dress code?” Inside I was conflicted because of my pride in the persistence of these two students to tactfully present a proposal with such professionalism and grace. On the other hand, I was annoyed that they actually remembered and followed up with me in the midst of my busy schedule. More than anything else, I was reminded that we are educating our students to intentionally disrupt the status quo and become citizens who advocate for change in productive and meaningful ways. How could I make this experience more meaningful for them as a community service project with a convergence of interests for the school and the students?

As we strolled into my office, these two 4th graders already had an aura of victory and we hadn’t even discussed the proposal. They reminded me that we planned to do one day each month of free dress where the uniform policy would be waived. Recently, I’ve been reading “Empire State of Mind” by Zack O’Malley Greenburg. The book chronicles the rise of Jay-Z to an industry mogul. One of the points Greenburg makes is Jay-Z’s penchant for asking during a business deal, “What’s in it for me?” Essentially, he wants to know in any business dealings, how can our interests converge to create positive outcomes for both parties. This is where we found ourselves on this fateful afternoon in my office. We decided that we needed to make the free dress day in support of a school-wide initiative. Our STEAM focus is Urban Agriculture, so we decided to align the “free dress day” with a fundraiser for our Urban Agriculture program. Students would donate $1.00 in support of our STEAM program to support aquaponics, hydroponics and container gardening. We’d be able to purchase plants and seeds for the Spring season.

This experience reminded me as a school leader to always be open to providing a space for students to advocate for change even when it appears to send ripples through our own school community. Education means much more than test results and grades. Seeing students develop a proposal, advocate for others, and show persistence and professionalism is the authentic application of what we teach to students about activism and effecting change. The question is “Are we prepared to hear them when they speak?”

Published by Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area. He is the founder of Def-ED Clothing and the author of "The Mountain Principles" (2018) and The Brilliance Beneath (2016). His forthcoming book is "Principals Don't Walk on Water: They Walk Through It" (2020).

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