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What's the Plus?

Youth Voices Matter

By Scoie Green

On Jan. 20, we celebrated a new American president and vice president. I felt a sense of lightness as President Biden stressed healing, unity, and truth. It was very different from Jan. 6, the day a riotous mob took to the Capitol hoping to overthrow a Democratic government, which left me feeling overwhelmed and saddened. Most of all, I wondered, how are my students handling this news? Mateo said, “This is crazy! I couldn’t wait to come to your class. I was so stressed and needed someone to talk to. Our discussion time gives me a chance to unpack others’ viewpoints in order to better process information.”

Youth voices matter. Most of my students aren’t old enough to vote, but one day they will be. They’re at the age where they’re applying to colleges, playing sports, learning how to drive, and dealing with the stages of adolescence. These things are important, but so is the power of gaining knowledge and using their voice to speak on their own behalf and on behalf of those experiencing discrimination and exclusion due to unequal power relationships across economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions.

On Jan. 7, I needed to provide my students with the opportunity to express their feelings and emotions. There is no way that I could begin the lesson I had planned if their hearts were broken due to the trauma they witnessed at the Capitol.

So, that day, I took a different approach. I started with open-ended questions such as, “How do you feel about what happened yesterday? What was going through your mind while you were seeing those images? What questions about fairness and injustice did this insurrection raise for you?”

One of my Black students pointed out the difference between former President Trump’s response during the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter movement when he tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and when his speech to his supporters ended with the words “I love you.” She agreed with LeBron James’ statement, “We live in two Americas,” in which he explained his frustration at the lawlessness and lack of due diligence for Black talent and accomplishments. She also pointed out that Trump never said “I love you” to George Floyd’s family or to the millions affected by the coronavirus. As an educator and fellow American, it broke my heart to know that the 400-year ancestral burden of repeated physical, social, and psychological racial trauma has been passed onto yet another generation.

I then focused on strengthening my students’ voices by educating them about the government process, rights and responsibilities, and the ways to influence government as a citizen. Without this understanding, which offers not just facts but possible solutions, it is easy for my students to be misled and unable to distinguish fact from fiction. Moreover, my students will be able to apply these skills, based on evidence, when casting their votes.

For instance, Trump’s suspension from several social media platforms, including a permanent ban from Twitter, presents a teachable moment about the First Amendment. My students engage in social media on a regular basis and need to know that this is not a First Amendment issue because Twitter is a private company.

Some of my students hold jobs. I let them know that as citizens, they have the right to express themselves and exercise their First Amendment. However, those rights do not translate to the private workplace. There are consequences for the choices one makes. As a result, Trump’s tweets have gotten him impeached by the House of Representatives for the second time, a circumstance unequal in our history.

The goal of our discussion was for my students to speak on behalf of what they believe is right, and to make informed decisions based on evidence. Most importantly, I wanted them to feel comfortable sharing vulnerable information with a trusted adult. Mateo stated that although he doesn’t always agree with his classmates, the discussion provided healing. He felt these types of discussions are preparing him for real life. This year, not only will he celebrate his 18th birthday, but his first time as a registered voter.

The day after the inauguration, we watched national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s powerful performance of “The Hill We Climb.” She echoed the same themes as President Biden did, seeing strength in pain: “Even as we grieved, we grew.” I wanted her poem to serve not only as inspiration, but as evidence that youth voices matter.

Scoie Green teaches Professional Communications at Obra D. Tompkins High School in Katy, Texas. She is a 2020–21 Texas Policy Fellow.

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