Youth Leadership: Unafraid and Unapologetic


I am proud, per the usual, of young people standing on the front lines calling for change. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida, students took up position in the front of the battle for sensible gun reform. Met with death threats, resistance from the NRA, and gun enthusiasts calling them paid actors and dismissing their voices as children who should stay in their places, they marched to the state capitol in Florida, met with Trump and spoke truth to power as they confronted legislators like Marco Rubio. In a short amount of time, with a unified voice, they managed to force CNN to host a town hall, gain commitments from US senators, pressured Trump to ban the bump stock, led advertisers to leave the NRA and raised millions for their upcoming march in Washington. This result is the norm when we value and listen to youth voice, and these results could be more common if we allow them to lead.

I remember in high school being a student activist. Doing so is not easy, but required a tremendous amount of courage as resolve. My senior year in high school, I went to a Lynwood School Board meeting in protest of a change to our district's soda vending contract. Our current contract was set to expire at the end of the fiscal year. Typically, this would not have been cause for alarm, until we were notified that proceeds from vending machines on our campus would no longer fund our school activities account and would now be routed to the district office instead. As a student in Lynwood, the district office had a terrible reputation, especially when it came to fiscal mismanagement. The feeling was that we would never see that money again. The vending machines on our campus generated around 90 thousand dollars annually, which was used to fund student body activities, clubs, and sports. So it was vital that we retained these funds in order continue to promote school culture and spirit.

My peers elected me to write and deliver a speech to the school board. I spent all week working on my remarks and a list of demands. We asked that we retain the proceeds from the machines on our campus and that we, the students, be made a part of the selection process to secure more options for our student body. We felt like we had enough self-agency to speak up for ourselves and, as appropriate, have a say in how our campus was running.

That night, I remember signing up to speak with my hands shaking. The district office was aware we were coming and spent a couple of days trying to dissuade us from bringing up the issue in front of the school board. These attempts continued even during the board meeting when the chief business official pulled me aside and suggested we wait until a more appropriate time or maybe have our principal speak for us instead. I politely responded, "No thank you, the students here with me and those we represent are counting on me to be their voice tonight. I have to make sure the board hears their voices."

I began my remarks by asking all of the students and staff who came with me to stand. Even to my surprise, just about everybody in the room stood. There had to be close to 100 people standing. I went on to explain to the board what types of events we would no longer be able to support without these funds. I told them how homecoming would no longer be worth coming home to celebrate. I explained how events celebrating the diverse cultures represented on our campus would be no more. And I reminded them how my standing in front of them that night was a direct result of the culture and leadership opportunities these funds support on our campus. As I finished speaking, it felt like time slowed down as I made my way back to my seat with cheers and high-fives along the way.

After the meeting, a couple of the board members pulled me aside and told me how proud they were of us coming to speak to them and committed to honoring our demands. As a result, students served as members of the Lynwood Unified School District Vendor Selection Committee. This committee heard proposals from vendors, sampled products and made a recommendation to the board as to which vendors we wanted to service our campus. Most importantly, we ensured all proceeds made on any school's campus would remain there. Seeing the success my classmates and I secured that night is the reason I'm on the school board today. I made a promise to myself that I would run for the school board after college to continue standing up for students and fighting for my community.

I can relate to the survivors of the Parkland shooting who, as students, have to stand up and tell adults what they ought to do. These students aren't future leaders, they are leaders now, and I could not be more proud of them. When we tell young people to stay in their places, we should be inviting them to the front lines of the fight for change especially when that fight centers on what is best for them. They should not be dismissed; they should not be told to wait their turn and they should not face suspension for participating in marches or walk-outs. We have to clear the way for their leadership and amplify their voices and respond to their experiences. If we endeavor to change the world and build a better society, we cannot do so without the strength, ideas, and voices of young people.