Just this year, three student activists at my school joined forces to form the Burlington High School Social Justice Union. The student-run group is dedicated to addressing discrimination in the school community. In the last couple of years, similar groups have popped up in many high schools in the area. For instance, Rice Memorial High School, Essex High School, and Vermont Commons School are among those that have formed social justice groups this year.
This past September I began an internship at the Peace and Justice Center, and I have had the opportunity to work with other interns who take important roles in their schools’ social justice groups. I have learned about the hurdles that they face in garnering administrative support and establishing a voice within their schools.
When the center’s program director, Kyle, introduced the idea of planning an event to bring these groups together, I jumped on the opportunity to help out. As a student and a youth activist, I think it is really important for student groups to build off of each other’s ideas and work collaboratively. Due to how new many of the school clubs are, it is especially beneficial for students to have this opportunity to learn from more established clubs.
The first step we took in planning the event was to reach out directly to student leaders. We created an online survey which was sent to social justice clubs from over ten different schools. The survey was designed to compile student input as to what would be most beneficial for student groups. We asked students to share what they do best and what they would like to work on as a group, and we asked them to rank potential activities according to how useful they would be. The responses we received showed high interest in learning from other students and participating in group discussions.
Using the survey responses to guide us, we set a date and a location. We went on to plan the structure of the day. We decided that it would include a town hall forum, open discussion, a panel of student leaders, and, of course, food. The High School Leaders Conference was born.
It is really important to us that we simply provide a space for these groups to exchange ideas, allowing students to take the lead. It has been great to have students who will be attending the conference with their groups, such as myself, involved in the planning of the event because we have been able to communicate with students throughout the process.
I am excited to see what groups will take away from the conference. I hope that the newer groups, who might be struggling to establish a voice in their school, can come away with some insight and inspiration from others. It would be awesome to see groups build relationships at the meeting and continue to work together in the future.
by Lena Stier
PJC High School Intern Fall 2017