Finding Your Internal Voice for External Action

When was the first time you found your voice?

In a newly designed workshop, Student Voice’s National Field Director Andrew Brennen, asked students, teachers, and school leadership in both Kentucky and Orlando last week to reflect on the time they first found their voice. “When did it happen? What prompted it?”, he asked.

One teacher noted that with recent police shootings he felt inclined to “do something” and use his voice but was unsure as to what change he could really make. Being a white, Anglo Saxon, protestant male, he recognized he epitomized privilege in our country. When he reached out to former students of color asking how he could advocate on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, one student replied, “Be our voice in the conversations we aren’t invited to.”

Another teacher’s internal voice developed when she was a high school student preparing her post-secondary plans. After being accepted into college, one of her teachers first remarks to her were, “You only got into college because of your last name.” Because her last name was of her hispanic descent her teacher expected less of her and suggested her access to education was given not earned. Now, she speaks out against racially charged comments and will defend the diversity of her students.

During a panel discussion in Orlando, a student audience member talked of his transition from a traditional, public school into a Big Picture Learning Network charter school. “School was boring to me when I sat in class, took tests every day, failed them, & was told I was stupid,” he said. After switching schools, he was able to recognize the lackluster quality of education he had previously received and is now seen as a student advocate for school improvement through student engagement.

In each case, the decision was never easy, but it seemed to come at a moment of truth. A moment where silence seemed to stop being a reasonable option. We’re discovering that developing a voice comes in two parts — an internal and then an external voice.

The internal voice is guided by morals to develop a sense of self and beliefs. Developing internal confidence establishes a framework by which one transitions into taking a stand externally and using their voice. This is the kind of action we see when students hold protests, walk outs, and think critically about school improvement.

Traumatic experiences, recurring injustices, or even just a conversation all threaded the common theme of developing and releasing an internal voice. They noted their internal voice developed earlier than their external voice. Perhaps consider one’s internal voice as a driver and one’s external voice as the vehicle.

But, what does it take to develop one’s internal voice? What accounts for the variance in when people develop their internal and external voices? And what can teachers do to help their students develop their voice, and by extension, agency, as early as possible?

We believe that every student has a voice, and as we continue our cross country tour this fall, we hope to unleash the external voice AND internal voices of all the students we meet.