Why I’m A Youth Activist

I remember in third grade my teacher Mr. Clark had each of the students stand up to be assigned a class name, an adopted name we would call each other in our classroom. My name was Sankofa, a West African adinkra that symbolizes the importance of learning from the past.

It was a moment that would stay with me, one I often reflect on as an educator-activist. While I have since moved from that classroom as a student in Cleveland to my own third-grade classroom as a teacher in Chicago, I have continued to keep my experiences as a young person in mind as I work with youth advocating for social change.

I come from a working-class neighborhood, where the women in my family taught me the value of relationships, self-determination and collective care. My aunt, who raised me, set an example by balancing an award-winning career as an attorney with a steadfast commitment to community. We were always feeding the homeless at Christmas, celebrating Kwanzaa and lifting up the ancestors. She used to do historical re-enactments of Sojourner Truth, and I remember seeing her become another person — but still being herself.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere,” she would say, embodying that 19th-century activist. “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
“Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

Those performances still inspire me — when I am working for social justice, when I am getting arrested for protesting the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, or when I’m lobbying for legislation that will provide more resources for our public schools, I feel like a different person, just like my aunt did. I feel like a more empowered version of myself.

My aunt surrounded me with images and examples of pride and self-concept, but I also understood that the kind of success she was able to achieve at home and in the workplace takes a lot of hard work. Today I am drawn to spaces that have the grace to understand that we are all carrying heavy baggage, but we try to lift the burden together.

Spaces like the AFT’s Racial Equity Task Force, where I volunteered to outline solutions to racism in our schools and workplaces. It’s one thing for an organization to hand out grand ideas about racial equity; it’s a whole other thing to dedicate resources to building something like this, flying in committee members with real-world experience to spend hours together crafting proposals that really have some teeth.

It’s important that the AFT, an education advocate, is spearheading this effort. I understand the power of education. My aunt made it possible for me to attend a boarding school, and later to travel to Honduras to teach English at an orphanage, where I realized I wanted to be an educator. I understand how closely education and activism are linked.

Chicago youth rally to keep their schools open. Photo by Lee Balgemann

In a city that has experienced one of the largest numbers of public school closings, an overwhelming number of youth have engaged in civic and direct action to demand quality schools and community safety. They are the ones displaced and confused when their neighborhood schools close, and they are the ones enduring racial hostility on college campuses. They are the experts of their own experience. Combining that with high-quality education gives them powerful potential to change the world.

Collectives like Black Youth Project 100, Assata’s Daughters and Black Lives Matter are helping them confront structural oppression — like poverty, poorly funded schools, and lack of social services in the places where they are needed most. Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) is a perfect example. I became aware of the organization when I took my first steps as an activist, riding in vans to the poorest neighborhoods in the city, knocking on doors and really connecting with people to hear what they needed most. Now, after years of campaigning, FLY recently opened a much-needed trauma center on the violence-plagued South Side of Chicago.

Photo courtesy of Black Youth Project 100

Youth empowerment is not new. Young people interrupted the status quo during the Children’s Crusade of 1963, when thousands of children put themselves in harm’s way to march on Birmingham for civil rights. More recently, #ConcernedStudent1950, led by college students, caused the resignation of the chancellor of the University of Missouri over a racist campus climate. Coming from a place of experience not only creates urgency; it also bolsters young people’s ability to envision effective solutions.

Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist, once said, “The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” History has shown us young people will continue to be self-determined, and I believe it is our duty as educators to empower them with the greatest tool for resistance: quality education.

Johnae Strong is a third-grade teacher at Ogden International School of Chicago, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and a co-chair of the Black Youth Project 100 Chicago. She is part of the youth activist community and uses her education and privilege as a tool for resistance to gain access to solutions that benefit all people.