Students across the country, from Minnesota to New York City, have walked out of classes and are taking to the streets to demand better covid safety policies. Some protesters called for remote learning while others asked that school leaders enforce policies already in place. Students in Oakland, Calif., started a petition, hoping that administrators would listen. When they failed to, the students walked out.
Adults have routinely been dismissive, even suggesting that students are pawns of teachers unions or that students simply want to skip classes. The idea that young people can clearly see what is happening at schools during the pandemic — like they have with climate change, guns and the curriculum — has routinely been brushed aside.
But these students are a part of a long tradition of young people who have been told, in the creation of youth civic engagement programs or through a system that rewards participation in student government, that their voices matter. And they are claiming that power now.
The practice of empowering youths to voice their own demands gained momentum in the 1960s as the federal government established “community action programs” to combat “feelings of ‘powerlessness’ among poor people of color.” Initiated as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, these programs included job training and skills-development classes as well as grants for community development to fight poverty.
The emphasis on community involvement also extended to the expansion of parallel civic institutions. The Detroit Commission on Children and Youth, for example, debated the need to establish a citywide youth government in 1965. Although cities like Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia had established similar youth programs much earlier, the mid-1960s witnessed a rapid increase in such projects. The programs aimed to teach students the values, ideals and practices needed to live in a democratic society and sought to redirect adolescent energy away from “delinquent” activities.
During the 1960s, Black high school students in Detroit decided to act on the belief that their concerns mattered as future citizens of a democratic society. In April 1966, Charles Colding, a Black student at Northern High School, penned a biting critique of Detroit’s public schools in the Northern Light, the student newspaper.