How Boston High School Students are Changing the World Today

In a classroom at the E.M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, 50 high school seniors are putting pen to paper, with the help of 826 Boston, to create change with their stories — and we should all listen up.

Kennedy Academy seniors attend their book project’s kickoff panel, which featured activists Abel R. Cano, Shamara Rhodes, Priscilla Dzidzor Azaglo, and Rebecca Riccio.

826 Boston, a nonprofit youth writing and publishing organization, works with Boston students to publish several books of student writing each year. Our books range from a picture book by second graders about marine biology and conservation to a bilingual anthology of high school redesign proposals written by high school seniors.

“From the Little Rock Nine to the March For Our Lives and Dreamer movements,” Kennedy Academy senior Ivy declared at the launch of this new project on civic engagement, “young people have been leaders of change in this country.”

The Little Rock Nine: nine Black students who, desegregating their school system in 1957, voluntarily faced a mob that included the Arkansas National Guard. The youngest, Carlotta Walls, was fourteen.

The Dreamers: undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, whose youth organizing compelled President Obama to institute the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012.

The March For Our Lives: a nationwide movement led by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February 2018, who organized students as young as elementary schoolers to march for gun control across the country.

“From the Little Rock Nine to the March For Our Lives and Dreamer movements, young people have been leaders of change in this country.”

And, to add to Ivy’s list, 1971’s student protests in Boston: more than half of the city’s Black students walked out of their public schools to protest widespread segregation, harsh discipline, and cultural disrespect. They demanded an end to corporal punishment, to police presence in schools; they wanted Black studies courses, Black faculty, and the right to wear Afros and dashikis.

Now, treading the same halls, our students are using their voices to highlight many of the same issues.

In 2016, 826 Boston students published Attendance Would Be 100% / Tendríamos Asistencia Perfecta: Student Proposals for High School Redesign Boston. The Mayor had called for a high school redesign. Who better to weigh in than students?

“We are the first graduating class of the Margarita Muñiz Academy, the only two-way bilingual high school in Massachusetts to date,” the students wrote. “We hope that the proposals in this book will be taken seriously.”

Their proposals are serious: evidence-driven, footnoted, backed up by interviews with experts. Eliminate standardized tests. Desegregate schools. Offer vocational training. Practice restorative justice, not suspension.

The following year, students in our Writers’ Rooms at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science were asked their thoughts on MassDOT’s 25-year plan. They responded with a book. The letters in 85 Cents Might Not Sound Like a Lot: Our Vision for the Future of the Transportation System offer solutions for late buses, inaccessibility for riders with disabilities, and violence on the MBTA.

Writing 85 Cents taught our students the power of their words. “No one is going to listen to us, so why write these letters?” the Burke class asked at the beginning of the program. By the end, they were writing, “We want this book to inspire other students [and] help them to realize that their voices matter.”

The ninth-grade authors of We the Students at the book’s release party.

Earlier this year, freshmen at the O’Bryant wrote We the Students: Essays that Claim Our Marginalized Histories. Telling a more inclusive story of the past, they believe, can change our future. The students profiled feminists, anti-racist activists, and pacifists, from Shirley Chisholm to Chelsea Manning.

As they wrote, their words became the solution to the problem they’d identified. “I hope students learn about people like Malcolm X,” 14-year-old Jimmy wrote — and thanks to the profile he’s written, more of them do. Our students’ voices are not just arguing for change; they are the change itself.

Our students’ voices are not just arguing for change; they are the change itself.

“Young people come of age with three tools essential for renewal,” writes veteran organizer Marshall Ganz. “A critical eye of the world, a clear view of its needs and pain, and hopeful hearts that give a sense of the world’s promise and possibilities.”

Kennedy Academy senior Ivy introduces the book project at its kickoff.

Earlier this semester, Ivy and her class went to see The Hate U Give, an adaptation of Angie Thomas’s novel about young Black Lives Matter activists. In an interview about the movie, Thomas observed, “The young people I write for now will run this country one day.”

We think she’s right. And our students agree.

“[The Hate U Give] impacted us a lot and got us thinking about police brutality and all the other issues affecting our neighborhoods,” Ivy said. “This book project will give us an opportunity to dive into these issues more closely and hopefully begin to make things better.”

Why choose the senior class for this project?

“This is when they become adults,” says Will Marshall, Writers’ Room Manager for 826 Boston, who is leading the book project. “We want them to be leaders in their community.”

For their book, our students at the Kennedy Academy are using Ganz’s public narrative framework, which drove a half-century of his work (from Freedom Summer and Cesar Chavez’s migrant worker strikes to the Sierra Club and Camp Obama), to focus in on issues that matter to them. They’ll be using 85 Cents and Attendance as mentor texts.

First, they write the Story of Self: who are you? How have your experiences shaped your values? Then, they’ll write the Story of Us: who is your community? Why should they care?

They’ll conclude with the Story of Now, a call to action laying out the nightmare (which happens if we don’t act) and the dream — all that can happen when we do.

For 826 Boston, the dream is that you read this book, which will be published in May. That you’ll listen to the students in its pages. That you’ll understand they’re not just future leaders; they’re our leaders right now.

826 Boston is a nonprofit youth writing and publishing organization that empowers traditionally underserved students ages 6–18 to find their voices, tell their stories, and gain communication skills to succeed in school and in life.