Adults don’t always have the answers. They can’t simply apply the lessons of their own childhoods to those currently living with childhood’s difficulties. Occasionally, youth have to make their voices heard, to correct the ignorance of the older generation. Recently, Shawn Brooks, a junior at the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut in New London, had a teacher who said Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group. (It is not.)
The incident underscored why Brooks and his peers at Hearing Youth Voices — a youth-led group seeking positive change in New London’s school system — felt it important to vet the candidates for New London’s Board of Education on a night in late October, two weeks before the Nov. 7 election. For anyone familiar with the occasional drudgery of municipal politics, the event was extraordinary: incumbent and aspiring politicians having to account for their opinions and plans in a space and in a manner determined by those who will be most affected by those policies. This was not the dusty halls of some municipal building. This was a former tattoo parlor, where the youth had set up a speaker playing hip-hop off their phones, the tattoo flash still hanging on the wall. Of the 15 people running for a seat on the Board of Education, 11 candidates presented themselves for interrogation.
The evening began with a process known as “check in,” in which the students and candidates alike went around in a circle, giving three bits of information: their names, a number based on how they were feeling, and a word to describe how they were feeling. Some candidates were “nervous.” Students were correspondingly “ready” and “excited.”
The students then split the candidates up and began interviewing them from a set of questions. Each interviewer was accompanied by a note taker — mostly students from nearby Connecticut College — as well as an audio-recording device, keeping the record of what was said.
The students’ primary concerns are those having to do with their day-to-day lives: disciplinary policy, dress code and the hiring of teachers. As an adult it can be difficult to recall the extent to which school teachers govern your life, and the control they can exert. Brooks says the students in the school district are roughly 80 percent black and Latino, but its teachers are mostly white. Why is that a problem? According to Brooks, a teacher “might not have that same background and might have a stereotypical view of the student that they’re teaching.” This is a polite way of explaining what the problem is when a teacher describes a social movement incredibly important to a large number of young people as a “terrorist group.”
In addition to their interest in hiring practices, the student questioners at Hearing Youth Voices also want to know about curricular changes. They are concerned about what they will be taught, in addition to who will teach them. The flow of information was not one way. In addition to questions about school board policy, the youth told the candidates about their experiences with disciplinary policies, racism in the schools and the like. The first-hand accounts even provoked an apology from one of the candidates. According to Asaada Craig, a senior at the college-prep Williams School, this is precisely the point. The candidates, she says, are not there “to tell us what we’re going to do, because that’s not what this space is for. That’s how we’re treated in school.”
While the session with the Board of Education candidates was the first event of its type for Hearing Youth Voices, the group has been doing this kind of work since about 2012. The organization started out as a research body, looking into the issues the youth of New London schools were invested in. Over time the mission evolved into one of advocacy and campaigning around issues such as discipline.
During the concluding “check out” session, students and candidates were asked to say something they learned from the session. Makeeda Bandele-Asante had a message for the candidates, a lesson that would extend beyond the evening’s interviews. “A lot of our candidates are very progressive, and want to move forward. I noticed that a couple of our candidates are still, you know, still catching up.” The group let out a laugh. “We got y’all,” she told the political hopefuls.