Executive Director at Student Voice
Merrit Jones is the Executive Director of at Student Voice, a student-run nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the student movement by empowering high schoolers to take action on the issues that most affect their education. Merrit, who is a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, leads a team of 12 students from around the country to empower young people to take action on the decisions that affect their lives by aggregating and amplifying their voices. For more information about Student Voice, visit StuVoice.org, follow @Stu_Voice and #StuVoice on Twitter and Instagram and like their page on Facebook. This month, the CivXNow newsletter spoke with her about their work.
Q: What is Student Voice, the organization?
Jones: Student Voice, is a 501c3 guided entirely by young people working to involve students in high school and college from across the country. We are really working to help young people unleash the power of their own voices, and take ownership of their own learning. We’re working to push young people into traditionally entirely adult spaces. We run an ambassador program where we train and equip high school students to do really cool work in their schools. We have a journalism fellowship that teaches how to tell stories effectively. We have an online community called Youth United for Action that connects and uplifts participants and provides advice and opportunities for young people across the country.
Through our tours and our online platform, we engage directly with between 2,000 to 10,000 students annually, depending on the year.
Q: What is student voice, the concept?
Jones: Student Voice means empowering students to have authentic and meaningful choices in their learning, their schools, and in the decisions that impact their lives. A traditional example would be student council or some sort of mechanism where students have a say in decisions. A more authentic form of student voice would involve students and teachers having conversations about coursework and really having meaningful dialogue about what that could include so as to have the most meaning for students.
Q: What are some of the most interesting initiatives that your students have taken part in?
Jones: We know students have always led movements and led protests — and now have led some of the largest marches that have ever taken place. But on a less dramatic day to day level, the students that I have worked with have helped advocate for bond referenda to help increase education funding. They have submitted amicus briefs to their state courts to advocate for education equity in their school districts. They have participated in lobbying their state legislatures to provide a student perspective and voice on superintendent hiring panels. They have successfully called for automatic voter registration in Rhode Island and are collectively calling for lowering the voting age to 16 in different cities across the U.S. These actions are student fueled and student-led.
Q: When you talk to students, what are some of the key issues that they are concerned with?
Jones: Through our platform, we have put together a Student Bill of Rights that we collected from student input over the years and through a tour that we did in 2016. We’ve found that students want the right to participate in elections and decision making in organizations — school being one of them. They want the right to technology and the right to free speech. Those are the three main things they always point to as ways in which their schools can make space for them to have a role in making decisions and in learning more about the world around them. They want to participate and feel like they have a role outside of the school walls. Having access to technology enables them to learn more and better understand the world that surrounds them.
Q: What are some of the keys to getting young people involved in making a change at their own schools?
Jones: Our method is to first have a conversation about school and the state of their schooling. I’ll host a roundtable discussion and start with the question: “Tell us about the things your school administrators do not know.” We talk about what they are learning and ask whether the content they’re learning is relevant. 99 percent of the time, the answer is “No.” Then we talk about examples of what other students are doing to address similar issues across the country.
The best thing adults can do is listen and be open to authentic discussion, and then follow up on requests and ideas. Often we see these discussions lack real authenticity and there is no intention of following up on the things that young people are saying.
Q: How important is it to meet students where they are?
Jones: In 2019, we are going on another student tour. In locations across the country, we are planning roundtable discussions and student workshops, working with faculty and staff and administration, going to faculty meetings with students and creating professional development. We are planning to visit some diverse and different places where we traditionally haven’t seen streams of activism. Students rightly have anger and frustration about how schooling is being done and that, too often, what’s provided in school doesn’t feel relevant to the outside world.
Q: What’s not working for students in schools these days?
Jones: One of the main issues is that there’s little direct real-world application of what students are learning. We often ask them when was the last time they talked about current events in their schools. Discussions of current issues aren’t happening. We interviewed students following the 2016 elections. They felt that their voices were largely silenced by their school administrations. They wanted to be able to have conversations about the elections and about the way that it was impacting their school climate. We’re also just not seeing space for young people to address community problems. We have seen some bright spots across the country, but we have a long way to go in a lot of public schools until we see math, science, and social studies classes that incorporate real-world problems and include topics that young people are interested in learning.
Q: How important is it to bring young people to the table when thinking about civics curriculum nationally?
Jones: Students want to see curriculum that reflects them. And traditionally, the people who are designing curriculum and designing the tests to measure that knowledge don’t look like the student population. Having young people at the table who are able to recognize this issue and call it out is crucial in ensuring that we have curriculum and testing that is reflective of the young people impacted by them.
Q: Have you met resistance from the adult population?
Jones: I wouldn’t say resistance — though I have met with students who have met with really fierce resistance from the school administration, and who haven’t been able to get their foot in the door. But I think in general, what we really see is a lot of apathy. We see a lot of one meeting and then no follow up and no interest in actually having adults come to a classroom and see what is actually going on, taking the test and seeing what kind of knowledge students are expected to know, or really reviewing curriculum in a way that is meaningful and thoughtful.
Q: How important is social media in engaging young people?
Jones: We have seen some teachers embrace social media and others have not. And some schools have embraced technology that has become a natural part of the lives of young people and the lives of everyone in this country. We are having a lot of conversations with students in schools with bans on cell phone use. Technology plays such a central role in daily life. Schools should really embrace its use in positive ways, to incorporate it into learning whether that involves using your phone to record events as they happen, recording podcasts, or the many other possible uses. Incorporating technology into classrooms is vital right now. And social media is the primary form of communication for the majority of young people and students in this country. We are hoping that teachers will make better use of it.
Share some insights from Merrit on social media:
“Students want to see curriculum that reflects them. Having young people at the table who recognize this issue and call it out is crucial in ensuring that we have curriculum and testing that is reflective of the youth impacted by them” @MerritJones, @Stu_Voice #civxnow #STuVoice
“#StudentVoice means empowering students to have authentic and meaningful choices in their learning, their schools, and in the decisions that impact their lives. ” @MerritJones, @Stu_Voice #civxnow #STuVoice
“Technology plays such a central role in daily life. Schools should really embrace its use in positive ways, to incorporate it into learning…” @MerritJones, @Stu_Voice #civxnow #STuVoice
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Post originally from Tuesday, December 11th, 2018 CivXNow Coalition Newsletter.