Today, the attacks on public education, including policies against acceptance of LGBTQ+ students and against curriculum and books that accurately reflect American diversity and history, are proving a threat to democracy, a civil society and the future of the United States.
Like the students who took part in sit-ins during the 1960s to fight racial discrimination, this generation of students is coming together to fight for change.
Student groups are speaking out at school board meetings, lobbying at legislative sessions and organizing protests, all to stand up against policies and legislation seeking to oppress what they learn and how they are allowed to exist in public institutions. All this engagement gains further importance as this generation comes forward to exercise their voting power.
Called to activism
Across the country, students from elementary schools to college campuses have mobilized to defend their rights to learn the accurate history of their country, read books that reflect who they are and exist as their true selves. Students of all ages are protesting the 496 anti-LGBTQ bills, including “Don’t Say Gay” bills, the more than 750 anti-critical race theory bills and the 1,477 book bans during the first half of the 2022-23 academic year.
In March, 100 elementary school students, led by three fifth-graders, held a walkout to protest Indiana’s HB 1608, also known as the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The following month, Walkout 2 Learn helped organize high school and college students across Florida to walk out of class in protest of what they called “the government censoring and erasing our history, culture, identities.”
Activism is important because it gives students the opportunity to activate civics lessons learned in school. Christine Emeran, director of the Youth Free Expression Program at the National Coalition Against Censorship, says her program “advocates for the expression of rights of K-12 students and staff, as well as the rights of student artists.” The Youth Free Expression Program offers several ways to empower students interested in fighting censorship, including the Student Advocates for Speech program. Students in this program can receive training on advocacy, how to engage their communities and press freedoms.
“Given that these are future citizens, it’s usually [in] the best interest for students to be able to feel empowered and to be able to speak out when they feel like their rights are being violated,” Emeran explains.
Although the Youth Free Expression Program has existed for nearly half of National Coalition Against Censorship’s 50 years, Emeran recognizes that student activism and involvement with her program has increased in the past few years. “The pandemic showed how engaged [students] were during the shutdown,” she explains. “We saw the biggest peaceful protests that we’ve ever had in the United States at that time. And who was on the frontlines? Those were students.” The Black Lives Matter protests to which Emeran referred also prompted students to get more involved in their schools.
The Georgia Youth Justice Coalition (GYJC) focuses on education justice by mobilizing high school and college students to speak out against censorship and social injustices. Through speaking at school board meetings, lobbying during the state legislative session and providing training for hundreds of young people in Georgia, the GYJC empowers students to make their voices heard on the issues that matter to them. GYJC, which now has about 300 members in its Student Power Hub, says that its recruitment is very relational. Many of its members bring friends also interested in getting involved.
Shivi Mehta, an organizer with the GYJC, is a high school junior. She began organizing when she was in the eighth grade after becoming fed up with the hostile climate in her school, especially toward minority students.
In Florida, a hotbed of many current controversies in education, Sarasota youths Nora Mitchell and Sebastian Martinez also felt called to speak out against injustices they saw in their school district, inspiring them to found student advocacy organizations. Mitchell points out that the issues that inspired her to get involved did not just pop up recently, saying: “Racism in education is not new. All of this discrimination within Sarasota and within the United States – it is not new. It’s only intensified.”
Making ‘good trouble’
Mitchell, a recent high school graduate now attending Harvard University, established Sarasota Students for Justice in August 2020. She says that she was inspired by wrongs in her school but also because she saw the work of upperclassmen like Martinez, who Mitchell says encouraged them to speak out.
While at Booker High School, Martinez founded the Sarasota Youth Association, which is growing into a statewide youth group with five to six chapters by next year. After high school, he moved away to attend Penn State University but returned to Florida after monitoring the increased hostilities in his community. He felt that he would be more helpful there on the ground. He now takes college classes online in order to devote more time to advocacy work.
Martinez’s group works to get Sarasota youth to exercise their civic duty through voting and election work. Members of his organization have volunteered on campaigns and are planning a “State of Our Schools” conference. They would like to interview school board candidates and host debates.
Through their organizations, Mitchell and Martinez work together to tackle issues in Sarasota. “It is pretty beautiful,” Mitchell says about how the groups complement each other. “Sebastian is getting students involved in local politics and national politics and getting them involved in government. My view is a little more pointed towards the cause of social issues particularly within Florida.” Mitchell says that the issue areas addressed by Sarasota Students for Justice are mental health, gun violence, racism, homophobia and sexism.
For the second year, GYJC hosted its Education Justice University in July, a summit bringing students together and helping them tap into their collective power to be agents of change in their communities. They also hosted their second legislative bootcamp in November 2022, which prepared members of their organization to actively participate in state legislative sessions, lobbying for policy priorities such as expanding school funding.
The coalition also works on local levels. Mehta says that she and her colleagues initially gave testimony at school board meetings, speaking out against policies that opposed diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and social emotional learning (SEL) measures. “Then they started banning our books,” she explains. In 2022, Forsyth County Schools in Georgia banned eight books, including “The Bluest Eye” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” for containing “obviously sexually explicit or pornographic” material. This prompted students to shift their focus and ramp up their efforts to ensure that DEI and SEL were kept in the school district’s strategic plan in addition to keeping books in schools.
After a complaint was filed against Forsyth County Schools, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) opened an investigation into whether the district’s book bans created a hostile environment for students based on sex, violating Title IX, or on race, color or nationality, violating Title VI. The OCR concluded that hostile environments were created, noting, “Board meetings conveyed the impression that books were being screened to exclude diverse authors and characters, including people who are LGBTQI+ and authors who are not white.”
Mehta pointed out the validation that came from the OCR resolution, saying, “To see now that the federal government is actually taking action against these sort of actions rooted in hate against the LGBTQ+ community, against students of color, against marginalized students as a whole. To see that they’re actually pushing for a difference to be made is really rewarding because they based it on several students’ claims.”
Identifying successes and threats
The successes of Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, Sarasota Students for Justice (SSJ) and Sarasota Youth Association (SYA) are vast. Some students point to specific achievements, while others consider their expansion and partnerships with other organizations as a win. GYJC points to their work in helping defeat school voucher programs and anti-LGBTQ+ bills in Georgia. “Wins even look like recruiting one more person into Justice University, because that’s one more person that we can get involved that we can mobilize,” she said.
Martinez points to the work of SYA in forming relationships and coalitions with other organizations. Mitchell highlights SSJ’s work to pass an equity policy and get a director of equity innovation placed in the Sarasota School District. “I do truly believe it was because of students like us who were advocating,” she says.
Mehta points to legislation and book bans as some of the biggest threats to her generation, calling out censorship and its potential impacts. She notes that public schools should reflect not only their students, but all of society. Therefore, Mehta says, efforts to suppress inclusive lessons pose a danger to U.S democracy, producing citizens without comprehensive, accurate knowledge about the world in which they live. “That understanding through our social studies classes or English classes or any classes is really crucial to being a good person and building a better world for other people,” she explains.
Mehta also calls out the devaluing of the work by student activists by older generations. “Our work is valuable,” she says. “I’ve been in so many spaces where I’’ve been undermined or dismissed because of how young I am.”
Martinez agrees that the biggest threat to his work is closed-mindedness and ignorance:
To our older generations who are currently in power, who don’t want to give power away, and who don’t want to listen to our ideas – we’re up against centuries of systemic racism. We are up against a set of assumptions or pedagogy. And we were up against essentially, centuries of not only ignorance, but quite frankly, hate escalation.
Christine Emeran also emphasizes the need to remember that these are not just children – they are future voters who are finding their voices. “These students are eloquent for 14 and 15 years old. This is a different generation,” she says. “These students are mature. And they understand the need to speak up and to not be invisible.”
Exercising civic duties
In addition to their power in activism, this generation also has power in the voting booth. Research by Tulchin Governing shows that young adults aged 16 to 21 of upcoming and newly qualified voters have views and priorities that differ from older generations, and they are prepared to make their voices heard in upcoming elections.
Generation Z, Americans born since 1997, is the largest in American history. By 2026, it will also be the first majority non-white generation in U.S. history, making it the most ethnically and racially diverse generation.
In polling conducted after the 2022 midterms, Gen Z was the only generation to identify abortion/women’s rights as their top voting issue. Addressing systemic racism was important to 78% of Gen Z voters, compared to 60% of baby boomers.
A poll conducted by Tulchin Research just before the 2022 midterm elections sought to evaluate the important issues and the levels of enthusiasm among low-propensity voters aged 18-26 in the Southeast. Voters in Florida and Georgia show the most enthusiasm about voting during the midterms. Among the top motivators for these voters was fulfilling their civic duty, as well as issues and ballot measures that they wanted to vote on. Most voters disapproved of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, and this was a motivating factor for 76% of voters, who said that this decision made them more likely to vote.
Mitchell sees climate change as important for her generation. Mehta adds that immigration and education are also key: “Our community cares very deeply about education. I think we would really appreciate seeing less vouchers, and we would be paying attention to politicians that propose vouchers or are in favor of voucher bills, to make sure that we don’t elect them again, because quality education is a huge value with us.”
Martinez, who is planning his own school board campaign, says that the issues he and his colleagues are fighting for are humanitarian. “We just want to live in an altruistic society,” he says. “We want to reset, and we want to reach that era of equality and equity. And I think that’s what really matters to our young people.”
The late Rep. John Lewis, who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963, once proclaimed: “I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get into trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
This generation, the most diverse in U.S. history, has lived through censorship of what they are allowed to learn and read and how they are allowed to live as their true selves. This generation is not lazy or disengaged; they are motivated and mobilizing for change. They are also optimistic about the world they are set to inherit.
Mehta says that seeing so many of her fellow high-schoolers advocating for a better world for everyone and caring so deeply about change gives her hope.
“We certainly have our work cut out for us, trying to dismantle these sorts of systems. I know that in our lifetime, we probably won’t dismantle every single system, but it’s certainly a possibility. We certainly have the potential to do so. And I think it’s worth a try.”
Banner photo of Sarasota, Florida, student Sebastian Martinez by Octavio Jones