Student activists representing the Providence Student Union (PSU), Youth in Action and PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement) were invited to speak at Rhode Island College to speak about “Youth-Led Social Justice Activism in Rhode Island.” Also speaking at the event was Dr Keith Catone of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, who has written a book on teacher activism and is currently studying youth-led activism.
Kafui Glover is a student at E-Cubed Academy and Dorbor Tarley, and Virginia Georgiev are students at Classical High School. All three aredelegates for PSU and members of the ethnic studies task force.
Describing PSU, Glover says, ““We, basically, are all about student voice. We have delegates at every Providence high school.”
It’s at big meetings of delegates citywide that students discuss “what’s going on in schools, that’s where we get campaign ideas, that’s where we get what our goals are for the school year…”
Tarley listed off PSU’s impressive campaigns. “Some of the campaigns we have done are stopping high-stakes testing; the bus pass campaign, which was how I initially got involved in the Providence Student Union, that happened in my freshman year of high school,” said Tarley. “And another campaign was the Providence student walk-out. And a campaign that we’re currently working on is the ethnic studies campaign. And our current campaign also is the Student Bill of Rights, which is a general outline of rights student’s should have.”
“All three of us are on the Ethnic Studies Task force and through that we are able to lead facilitations with Providence Public School District officials, which gives us a one-on-one access to teachers and officials within our district that otherwise we would not have,” said Georgiev. “I was part of the 2017 PVD Walk-Out in solidarity which was a protest to Trump’s inauguration.”
Initially, Georgiev wasn’t sure about participating. She and many students had midterms, and were told that walking about would severely impact their grades. Through organizing and discussion with school officials, they were able to “allow students to participate in the walk-out without receiving a failing grade on all their mid-terms, which was said to be a punishment for participating in the walk-out.”
Through their advocacy, they were able to make sure “students had a voice in political change,” said Georgiev.
“As you grow and you graduate to high school, and as you know more and you may be socially conscious, you realize that some things that adults talk about or some things that teachers tell you to do may be unreasonable, may be nonsense,” said Glover. “And Providence Student Union gives us the space to organize properly so that we can make change: Make forceful change in our communities, in our schools.”
“We are a non-profit organization located on Broad Street where youth come together to share their stories and experiences and acquire skills to become a better member of the community,” said Latifat Odetunde, a senior at Classical High School and a member of Youth in Action. “So we don’t necessarily focus on campaigning, but what we do is try too enhance the climate and culture of our community by facilitating workshops with a variety of people.”
Odetunde, along with Thaina Merlain and Ashley Gomez represents three different kinds of activists. Each spoke about how integral their activism is to themselves, the communities they serve and to the future they want to create.
“I’ve been with Youth in Action for about four years now, and within those years I have grown immensely as the activist I am today,” continued Odetunde, “Youth in Action has helped me grow to care for the community that I serve and has helped me become more aware of the disparities that we face.
“I have become more aware of my identity, and the hardships that the identities I am a part of face. So, for example, being a Muslim, we’re viewed in the media as a terrorist. So being a Muslim and a follower of Islam, I not only wear this hijab on my head to serve God, but to break that barrier of being known as a terrorist.
“As a person of color, I’m viewed as unintelligent and as a woman of color I’m viewed as irrelevant.
“So what do I do to break that barrier? I work hard at school. Yes, I am aware that the education system is corrupt. But what do I do? I study it. I study it to see how it works so I know how to succeed within that system. So I get good grades. Once I get those grades I want to get a degree. Once I get a degree I get a table at that seat. Once I get a table at that seat? I’m going to destroy it.
“The activist that I am is breaking the system from within,” said Odetunde.
Thaina Merlain is also a senior at Classical High School. She was shy as a young girl.
“But today I stand here, loud and in front of you, showing you the type of activist that I am,” said Merlain. “Front and center, on the stage, talking. And I find my true identity in public speaking. I find my identity when I am in front of people, when I am speaking what is on my mind.”
Recalling the 2017 Student Walk-Out, Merlain said, “We took control of the streets on that day. We took control of the environment that we were in, the institutions we’re in. And now you see thousands of students taking ground for something we never thought we would be a part of. Politics, right? Students thought politics were boring.
“But look at that. We’re changing it all. We’re changing the system that we have grown up in.
“So on the day that we walked out, we were threatened with our grades. We were threatened with punishment. We were threatened many different ways that students obviously care about. We care about our grades. We care about going to college. We care about creating a future for ourselves.
“But that day, we’re like, we need more.
“And as a young black female living in society, the curriculum doesn’t teach me how to be myself. The curriculum doesn’t teach me how to stand up for myself within my society.
“So that day, I took a stand, along with many other students, to take a stand, to show people that there’s more to me than just the A’s and B’s,” said Merlain.
Ashley Gomez is a member of Youth in Action senior at the Lincoln School in Providence.
“What I have gained from Youth in Action has been the importance of interpersonal relationships,” said Gomez.”A lot of times when we think about activism we think about these big structures that are oppressing us, like capitalism, racism, sexism. But we don’t talk about day-to-day interactions we gave with everyone around us.
“My activism is in the conversations I have with everyone. So in every conversation I have I take my intentionality, all the words that I used, and make sure that I communicate the way I want to.
“So I go to a predominately white school and a lot of times I’m the only person in my classroom who’s – the only black girl, the only girl from the Southside, the only girl who eats rice and beans every day for dinner. So that means that a lot people can take that as; Oh, she’s the token. She’s going to sit down while we say something we’re not supposed to say.
“But that’s wrong. I will correct you – or I start a dialog.
“It’s… about thinking about all of us as humans. Each of us are people. I’m a person, Latifat’s a person, Thaina’s a person. You all are people and a lot of times when we communicate with each other, we forget that. We we speak about groups that are marginalized, we forget that.
“So my activism is speaking up for those who aren’t in the room or who don’t have a voice,” said Gomez.
Steven Dy is the organizing director of the Community Defense Project at PrYSM. Dy spoke about PrYSM, Southeast Asian population in Providence and the Community Safety Act, as well as more generally about activism.
“PrYSM was founded in 2001,” said Dy, “PrYSM started right in the heart of Providence, the West End. It’s one of the most heavily policed communities in the City of Providence and that is where a very large percentage of the Cambodian community resides.
“PrYSM works to end street, state and interpersonal violence within Southeast Asian communities, fostering social justice and youth leadership and it’s led by queer youth and Southeast Asian families.
“We recognize that when we do the work, the most important component are the youth. The youth are the future. They are going to be in the forefront, fighting the fight for you when you’re at work. When you’re busy, deep in your life with your families, trying to start up and live the American dream, there are going to be youth out there, fighting for your rights. For your kid’s rights. For the rights of future generations. and communities of color that are disenfranchised and marginalized.
“When PrYSM started… we understood that we needed to make the communities and the environments and the children we invest in flourish, we need to be safe. They need to be places where creativity can be cultivated.
“So we started diving deep into how we could change that. How we could make our community safer. How we could make it so that the youth don’t have to worry about walking home at seven o’clock that night and being stopped by police because they’re wearing a black hoodie and a really big backpack.
“Some people have to go to work. Some people have to help their families survive. Some people might not even have a chance to go to school because of the environment that their brought up in.
“We want everyone to be equal and have equal rights. We want everyone to start at the same place. That’s what true equality means.
Dy brought up the gang database. “There were no clear policies or protocols around it. So the police could pretty much do whatever they wanted to with it. And when youth went to court for truancy, because they couldn’t make it to school because they had to work or stay home and take care of their brothers and sisters… officers that recognized this person, this youth, would say, ‘oh, this person’s a gang member.’ Then the punishments and sentences that were given to them were much more severe than their counterparts in high school.
“Why is it that when you had to miss two days of school you get punished and you have to miss another week?
“We have these zero-tolerance policies that do not help or invest in our students,” said Dy.
“The way we learned to get youth to really be more involved and more encouraged to go to school and educate themselves was through organizing.
“We learned that when there’s a sense of community, a sense of togetherness, a sense of solidarity within a group of people, they work much harder at their goals. When you’re fighting for something that you believe is true and just, it’s incredible how much you would do to make sure that that happens.
The Community Safety Act “started off as state legislation, but it got watered down,” said Dy. “So we decided in 2011 that we would work within the City of Providence. So we created an ordinance called the Community Safety Act. Twelve different provisions that go over things like youth, immigrants, privacy, stops and searches… language access…
“It’s being implemented in January, 2018. We just passed it in June. It took three years to get that through.”
Dr Keith Catone presented a talk called, “The Leaders of Tomorrow are Here today (and already doing it!)” in reference to the amazing activism being done by Providence students.
“Like quite literally, here, in the room, but they’re already doing this work, out in the streets and in our communities,” said Catone. “My research is in specifically, teacher activism. I spend a lot of time thinking about the pedagogy of activism, and how we understand what it means to be an activist, do do activism to become an activist and live as an activist.
Catone pulled two ideas from Gloria E Anzaldúa’s book on feminist theory, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. The first term is choques, which Anzaldúa writes about:
Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incomparable frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision.”
“So folks who are not of the mainstream, dominant culture straddle realities,” said Catone, they, “move through the reality that’s true for them, and continually come up against the normative structures around us, that don’t accept the reality of who they are and then there’s a collision.
“Often times activism is a response to a choque.
“I think the activism of the youth organizations [attending today] are in many ways their own, cultivated responses to the fact that the City of Providence, the State of Rhode Island and the United States are often set up in ways that are not accepting of who they are.
The other term Catone borrowed from Anzaldúa is la facultad. This is defined as “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities. to see the deep structures below the surface. It is an instant ‘sensing,’ a quick perception arrived at without conscious reasoning.”
For Catone, this means that, “we sense when there’s a slight in a comment made to us that on its surface might feel completely innocuous. But you’ve heard it enough to know that there’s an insult underneath there.” Catone compared this phenomena to micro-aggressions.
“When we develop these deeper senses of what the reality is and we’re combining that with this cultural collision that we’re constantly faced with, one response [is to push back against this] and we can call that activism.”
When we sense these deeper issues, it creates anxiety, or fear, what Catone calls “apprehension.” But another sense of apprehension is “understanding” says Catone. “Our anxiousness, our fear, our vulnerabilities: If we sit with them, if we explore them, if we understand them, [they] actually lead to deeper understanding. That la falcutad, right? So if we understand better, we can act with purpose.”