Voices in Education

Student Voices Needed in COVID-19 Crisis
The voices of students of color from low-income communities are needed now more than ever as we address the crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Young people are raising issues that have been largely ignored, like the mental health crisis facing students isolated at home. They are also organizing to support each other when systems fail and preparing to take advantage of opportunities the crisis might open up for more radical change.

The outbreak of the pandemic quickly revealed the systemic inequities in our society. Low-income and people of color have been sickened and died in disproportionate numbers. They have less financial resources to weather loss of jobs and face eviction at higher rates. Meanwhile, low-income and students of color are at risk of falling further behind more affluent students. Estimates suggest that a quarter of low-income students lack access to the internet and many lack space at home to study.

While researchers and education advocates have begun to highlight these inequities, students themselves have raised concerns that have not been widely appreciated. Students in Communities United and VOYCE, a youth organizing coalition in Chicago, have called attention to the social and emotional stress placed upon low-income students of color who were already under high levels of mental stress. They organized a virtual town hall with 150 participants on April 9 as a forum for young people to tell their stories and engage with mental health service providers and elected officials. They spoke of isolation, lack of access to food, and anxiety about their families paying the rent. They put forward youth-led solutions, demanding the governor and mayor immediately create an emergency mental health hotline, as well as provide students with virtual access to support systems from teachers, social workers, and counselors. Students also expressed a broader vision, calling for help for homeless youth and support for youth in detention and adults in prison.

Young people across the country like those in VOYCE are organizing for mutual support and to prepare to take opportunities opened up by the crisis to push for more radical change. The Alliance for Educational Justice co-sponsored a series of virtual national assemblies with several other groups on the theme of “building a movement that goes from crisis to liberation.” Three hundred fifty youth organizers participated and decided to create an ongoing space for community, learning, and collective action. They shared their stories, including the challenges of shifting from face-to-face to digital organizing. They watched Naomi Klein discuss how the public health crisis represents a deeper crisis of capitalism, and they dreamed of the kind of society—one of freedom and liberation for all peoples—that they would fight for through and on the other side of the crisis.

Our educational system and societal institutions were failing youth of color prior to the crisis. Young people are speaking out about the immediate need for mental health services and equitable solutions for students of color and low-income communities. Rather than return to an inequitable past, young people can inspire us to envision and fight for an educational and social system that would empower all youth to develop freely and to their full potential.

This blog post was written prior to the outbreak of mass protests against police killings and anti-Black racism. Youth organizing groups like VOYCE and the Alliance for Educational Justice have long called for the removal of police from schools and are now leading campaigns for police-free schools, marking a new stage in the movement to end the school-to-prison pipeline."

About the Author: Mark R. Warren is a professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He studies and works with community and youth organizing groups seeking to promote equity and justice in education, community development, and American democratic life. He is the author most recently of Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement (Beacon Press, 2018).

Jeffrey S. Moyer is a doctoral candidate in public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a lecturer in political science at Suffolk University. His current research looks at cannabis legalization in Massachusetts, focusing on the pathway of diffusion and the opportunity for social equity in communities impacted by criminalization.

Andrew R. King is a doctoral candidate in public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a lecturer in political science at Suffolk University. His mixed-methods dissertation research explores the impacts of the New York City Community Schools Initiative on family empowerment and participation.

Jeffrey S. Moyer, Mark R. Warren, Andrew R. King co-authored the article “Our Stories Are Powerful” in the Summer 2020 issue of Harvard Educational Review.