Drive them to a march. Buy their gas. Whatever it takes, support all kids marching today
As we support teenagers bravely taking the lead on gun control, let’s help the ones in less privileged places find microphones, too
As high school students across the country plan walkouts and marches to demand gun control legislation in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a social media refrain has emerged among sympathetic adults: Don’t listen when people say protesting will hurt your future. The “permanent record” they talk about doesn’t exist. Your high school punishments are meaningless once you graduate. Go, girl. March on.
While it is thrilling to cheer brave young people on, it is reckless – and indicative of social privilege – to suggest that their civil disruption will have no negative consequences.
As a child of poverty and the first college-bound member of my family in rural Kansas, I did not grasp the extent to which I depended on the teachers, administrators, coaches and counselors of my small public high school to connect me with academic and civic opportunities. My family was working in fields, on construction sites, and in retail stock rooms. They had neither the time nor the knowledge required to help me toward graduation and higher education.
Meanwhile, a justice-minded kid by nature, when I saw something I thought was wrong, I held nothing back – pressing my luck against the grownups who held the power to help or harm me. A budding muckraker, I helped resurrect the defunct student newspaper and vexed adults by publishing op-eds that, in Kansas, carry the same first amendment protections as the professional press. When a male teacher said something inappropriate, I told anyone who would listen that he was a pervert. When another teacher said something sexist, I called him out in front of the class.
I gained a reputation as the cheerleader who, instead of acting bubbly, had strong opinions and a smart mouth.
Fellow students began asking for my help when some injustice had occurred – say, the “stoner” kids being punished for what football players got away with. I led student walkouts and spoke on their behalf at assemblies called by the principal, who already knew me well. I was the only one of my high-achieving friends regularly sent to his office, perhaps because I had less to lose than they did in the way of social capital and thus saw little cause for self-censorship.
But without a mother in the parent-teacher association, without advocates available to show up and defend me in case of poor treatment, I was an easy target for immature teachers who thought I should be put in my place. One somehow forgot to take my artwork to the state capitol to hang alongside other student pieces selected from across the state. Another somehow left my name off the playbill when I was a lead actor.
Amid the swelling #NeverAgain movement, some high school administrations have publicly warned that students who participate in walkouts will be suspended for causing a commotion. In response, hundreds of higher education institutions – from state schools in the midwest to Ivy League universities in the north-east to liberal arts colleges in small towns of the south – have released statements assuring that high school punishment for peaceful, lawful activism will not adversely affect a student’s application. Some have extended not just tolerance but democratic solidarity. Spring Hill College, a Jesuit and Catholic school in Mobile, Alabama, tweeted to teenagers: “Speak your truth.”
Such responses from our formal centers of higher learning are heartening. But what of teenagers who rely on their high school to access, understand and submit a college application? What of those who will only afford college with scholarships – and only learn about scholarships through a high school guidance counselor? Others yet have no plans to attend college and will need to hire on at a local business, the manager of which might be a staunch member of the NRA.
In addition, people of color, LGTBQ youth and other historically marginalized student groups may face greater retribution than their peers for breaking the rules.
This moment in our democracy calls for risky disruption, and we are right to be inspired by the young revolutionaries among us. But we should not claim that all of them will be equally supported by parents, protected by community or lifted up by their adult liberal counterparts on Twitter. For many, speaking truth to power indeed threatens their lives beyond high school – not by establishing an official record, maybe, but by fostering unofficial disapproval among the adults to whose whims they are vulnerable.
To my knowledge, my challenging authority did not impede my path to college. But every time I spoke up and was promptly shut down I received the message that I was a bad kid for standing up for what I thought was right. The same treatment might have deterred another student from not only speaking her mind in the moment but seeking a life of community engagement through which her voice might be heard.
Having had negative experiences in public schools that had more to do with their poverty than with their promise as students, my own family members were both suspicious of and intimidated by the system I was trying to harness for a better life. My socioeconomic class sensed that we had little agency in public affairs, and unscrupulous school employees were the first teachers of a lesson we would relearn for the rest of our lives: if we wanted to avoid punishment, we best know our place – and nothing would ever change anyway.
This was, I see now, the adolescent socialization that carves the class divide in adult civic engagement.
In 2014, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (Circle) at Tufts University found that social class significantly influences participation in extracurricular activities among high school students.
Drawing on the federally funded annual survey of high school students Monitoring the Future, researcher Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg looked at responses from 14,000 seniors from 120 schools. Students from low-income backgrounds, the survey revealed, receive less encouragement and financial help to join clubs and activities – experiences that, many other studies have demonstrated, shape and predict civic identity in adulthood. Students perceived as slackers work more hours and have less formally educated parents than those perceived as leaders.
The widening wealth gap has increased those disparities, Kawashima-Ginsberg noted. Well-off families spend almost twice as much on organized activities for their teens as they did in the 1970s. Households of lesser means haven’t been able to increase their level of help, as their functional incomes have decreased. Thus, today’s wealthy family spends almost nine times as much on organized activities as their poor counterpart.
In addition to economic status, geographical proximity and access to opportunity shape the teenage experience of civic engagement. In a survey of 1,000 millennials after the 2016 election, Circle found that 60% of rural youth live in “civic deserts” – areas lacking organizations and institutions that enable democratic action – compared with about 30% of suburban and urban youth.
My rural school district was 40 miles from the small city of Wichita, and we perhaps fared better than the most remote rural areas in terms of civic organizations. Through our high school, the regional YMCA and Optimist club encouraged participation in an annual model-legislature field trip to argue student-penned bills at the state capitol. When I rapped the gavel as speaker of the house, for the first time I sensed the government as something I could touch and change rather than an amorphous power above the common people.
But as graduation neared, in my quest to enroll in – and afford – college, I was beholden to the same high school staff I often needled. It was the late 1990s, and there was no computer in our farmhouse from which I could attempt to research universities and funding options through the nascent world wide web. Only one computer in my school had a dial-up connection. Federal aid forms, tips for writing the required personal essay, how to choose a school, scholarship applications that might help me get there – all of these would be accessed through my school, not my family or the internet.
Fortunately for me, some of the adults in my high school championed me precisely for the reasons that others sent me to the principal’s office. Most of them were women. They told me about contests I should enter, drove me home after basketball practice while my caretakers worked, wrote in the margins of my essays that I was a born writer. They told me I should be a lawyer for how I argued. They told me I should be the goddamned president.
Their belief in me – my voice, my spirit, my American right to raise hell when I perceived an injustice – was crucial positive feedback for a kid who presented as confident but starved for affirmation in ways that my family of laborers was not equipped to provide.
Not all kids from disadvantaged homes and disenfranchised places are so lucky. Many of the students who walk out of classrooms this month will do so with the cooperation and support of their superiors. Others will do so in a less forgiving climate, and the least privileged among them stand to pay the greatest price.
Despite that particular courage, young people who – for their class, place, race or other demographics – might be the most powerful agents of disruption are also the least likely to make the news or connect with powerful organizations and celebrities backing student-led activism like #NeverAgain.
They are the least likely to attend the March for Our Lives on the national mall later this month. Traveling to Washington DC costs money, and they probably have to work on a Saturday anyway. (More likely to be present: the children of the women who afforded a trip to the same location for the historic Women’s March in early 2017.)
They are the least likely, even, to have parents with the time or engagement required to take them to a sister march in the nearest city.
The line between civic action and apathy, between hope and cynicism, is not drawn in adulthood. It etches its way through our schools – once constructed in the public sphere to produce, above all, citizens – to divide young people who will help shape public policy from those who will merely be shaped by it.
Last month, students from the affluent suburb of Parkland were invited to a nationally televised forum on gun laws, and they heroically rose to the occasion. Adjacent to that triumphant moment, though, is a troubling reality: teenage protesters in inner-city Detroit would be more likely to end up waiting for their parents in juvenile detention than debating senators on CNN.
Their voices and votes are less valuable because their lives are, we tell them through economic probabilities, popular culture, and social attitudes. Two days after the Parkland massacre, New York Times reporter Eric Lipton tweeted, “Impressive how articulate and well educated these kids are from this school. Obviously a good school. Another sad reason for yesterday’s events.” He soon followed up, “And not saying it would be less sad it there [sic] were poor kids, obviously. Just such a waste to see kids with so much opportunity before them wiped out.”
What such elitist frameworks miss is that “poor kids” carry valuable wisdom precisely because of their disadvantage. If given the chance, they would lead on matters of socioeconomic equality with the same passion we see in the Florida teens who saw their friends murdered.
To save this flailing democracy, there is no more important gesture than the civic validation and empowerment of all young people, whatever their early views. As we support teenagers bravely speaking out from Parkland, let’s help the ones in less privileged places find microphones, too.
Let’s drive them to a march. Buy their gas. Write a letter of solidarity to their principal or local newspaper. Connect them to the places they hope to go after high school.
As adults, let’s help make this moment historic not just for the fiery, rising star of awakened youth but for the inclusiveness with which it rises.
- This article was amended on 14 March 2017 to correct the name of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama.