Most high school students are not old enough to vote. Instead, their voices are frequently represented by those of voting age, or omitted entirely from conversations had with potential candidates and serving officials. When young people in Connecticut, especially of color, are directly impacted by stigmatizing processes such as school disciplinary procedures, their erasure from the conversation silences the very voices that should be elevated when looking for answers.
Undeterred that their age prevents them from to entering into the political arena as voters, youth leaders are instead engaging candidates directly, as constituents. This past election cycle, youth at Hearing Youth Voices, Grow Hartford, and Uplifting A Life attended forums, led campaigns and shared their narratives, holding those on the ballots accountable to representatives of the student bodies they sought to serve.
At Hearing Youth Voices, New London youth welcomed eleven local Board of Education candidates into their space and posed questions on dress code, discipline, and faculty hiring practices, bringing nuanced racial and gender lenses to the discussion. Their questions challenged candidate stances on equity with respect to the campaigns the organization had been running for the past year. Following the event, they created a voter guide that summarized the candidates’ responses to help inform voter decision-making and hold the candidates accountable for their individual stances. Read Connecticut Magazine’s write up on the successful night here.
“According to Asaada Craig, a senior at the college-prep Williams School, this is precisely the point. The candidates, she says, are not there ‘to tell us what we’re going to do, because that’s not what this space is for. That’s how we’re treated in school.'” – Connecticut Magazine, excerpt
In Hartford, Junior COMPASS Peacebuilders and Grow Hartford Youth Program members held a similar Q&A session in the Downtown library where smaller group sessions transitioned to a panel discussion ranging from issues of policing to the lack of healthy food options available in Hartford public schools. A little over a month later, Grow Hartford Youth Leaders and their allies attended the standing-room-only Board of Education meeting at Bulkely High School, and called for access to healthy food in schools, a request that is tied to a larger vision of a healthier, equitable Hartford.
“There has been conversation about the fact that we should be grateful for the lunch because it is free, but why should we be grateful for anything that is lacking in what we need? Many parents and students are thankful for free lunch, but our bigger visions is toward a city of students parents and caretakers free of poverty, earning a livable wage and not dependent on what anyone else tells them is good enough” – Dwayne, Grow Hartford Youth Program Member
In Waterbury, the Uplifting A Life Youth Council has been organizing against racist school disciplinary procedures. During the program, youth learned public speaking and practiced delivering personal narratives, skills they put into practice when they shared their personal experiences with their Board of Education. They raised questions of the long-term impact on young, Black students with criminal records for rule violations, and the inequity behind basing the fairness of a school’s penalization process on the amount its students pay in tuition. The Youth Council’s organized efforts won them another meeting with the Board of Education as they continue their campaign towards just in-school disciplinary procedures.
“Why is it that every school in Waterbury, Connecticut has a different disciplinary policy?…My second question is: does it depend on how much money you pay for school to influence the disciplinary policy? I would like to bring these questions up if we meet again in three weeks.” – Youth Council Member, testimony excerpt