By Ilana Cohen
With U.S.-Russian relations deteriorating on the daily, Middle Eastern conflict driving millions of refugees into Europe, and Donald Trump running to become our next President, it can often seem difficult for teens to make a difference in a world so plagued by chaos and violence. Yet the idea that teens are unable to combat larger issues or are not old enough to drive change is a work of fiction. Still, many of us at Beacon fail to take concrete steps towards disproving this theory.
Students’ Self-Imposed Limits
Despite being a fairly liberal school, as Beacon students, most of us have limits on the measures we are willing to take to defend our principles. We have several clubs–such as Women’s Empowerment and United Colors of Beacon–that foster important conversations about inequality and social justice. Occasionally, we attend protests in favor of movements such as “Fight for $15.” Yet as individuals, few of us are willing to get arrested for these causes. And on a smaller scale, many of us have ideas about how our school should be run. But the risks of tarnishing our transcripts, having phone calls made to our parents, or simply the fear that we will not be heard or could even be shamed for our beliefs restricts us from openly questioning administrative policies.
Often, students use social media as a tool to talk about social justice issues and spread important messages without following up on their statements with any organized action resulting from these online dialogues. Mr. Moscow explains, “You can be informed that there’s a meeting on your Facebook feed but that doesn’t mean you’re going to [attend] that meeting. [Social media] leads people to believe that just because you’re tweeting or writing angry messages about Issue X you’re somehow doing something, and that can lead to overconfidence [and make students believe] that they’re making a difference when they’re really not.”
Hebh Jamal, a Beacon senior and dedicated activist fighting for school integration, believes that Beacon students can do more to enact the social change that so many clubs discuss at school: “If you make a person feel like they belong…that’s considered social change, and that’s considered something positive…That message [needs to be] broader than just a couple of club meetings, and it certainly will pick up.” Through Hebh’s involvement in the Arab American Association of New York, she participated in a Muslim Grassroots Movement campaign video about the 2016 presidential elections entitled “About Us Without Us.” She explains how students are often reluctant to voice their opinions outside of school, despite that reaching out to groups in their communities–which Hebh has continued to do in pursuit of numerous social justice causes–is an essential step in becoming a part of larger social platforms.
Teens, Change, and the City
Last year, several high school students from Beacon and other NYC schools participated in the District 39 Participatory Budgeting (PB) process in Brooklyn as members of a PB Youth Group. PB is a process occurring throughout NYC districts in which constituents envision, develop, and vote on project proposals for neighborhood improvements to be funded by their local city council member, providing a way for people to implement positive change on a local level. Sophomore Isabella Rhodes, a former member of the PB Youth Group, believes that “by coming together, teens are capable of real change in local government, whether that’s [by] improving the conditions of a public school or building a garden space for New York City kids.”
Beacon students have amazing ideas for encouraging citywide equity and raising awareness about social movements, yet so few are involved in or even know about the PB process or other processes like it. There are many more opportunities to drive change in ways similar to that of PB. At school, students can join the Student Government club, organize demonstrations, and volunteer for presidential candidates–which is a great way for students to make a difference in the 2016 presidential elections regardless of whether they are of voting age!
Next Steps for Students
“It’s [students’] responsibility to reach out, and [their desire to do so] needs to be from within,” Hebh explains. “They need to be asking the questions. I would have never gotten the things I have now if I had never asked a question or gotten too curious…Get experience…go out there and protest…step out of your bubble.”
In addition to studying history and creating book clubs, Mr. Moscow also encourages students to reach out to approach organizations involved in community work. He explains, “There are already a lot of groups out there doing good work, finding them is not hard, a quick Google search will help you with that…You should go out and meet people, sit down face-to-face with people, and talk about things. I’m not sure anyone has the solution…but [trying to find one] has to happen with [other] people around [you].”
We, as teenagers, can provide a unique perspective on many societal issues. But more specifically, as Beacon students, we represent a majority of like-minded, fairly liberal individuals who speak out against the injustices we witness, especially at our own school. Last year’s Student Government meeting with Principal Lacey allowed students to voice a range of concerns and offer suggestions around improving school policy. Yet there have been few movements on behalf of both the student body and the administration towards implementing such changes. Hosting open dialogues on issues that arise at school, delegating more power to the student government, and fostering more open relationships with the school faculty are all actionable goals students can fight for.
With the start of a new school year comes the opportunity to push ourselves as students, community members, and activists for the causes that we believe in. Ultimately, whether through volunteering outside of school or rallying students at Beacon, it is time for many of us to turn our words into actions.