In Defense of Youth Organizing

By: Laila Nasher


As a child, you learn to take responsibility for your mistakes. Whether this means owning up to spilling that glass of milk or for ripping your older sister’s favorite t-shirt, it’s one of the most valuable and necessary lessons everyone should receive, and one that should be taken to adulthood. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. 

From my experience of working with different school leaders, many are either unaware, or unwilling to admit how the decisions they’ve made have negatively impacted the students, parents, and teachers that rely on them in their schools.  I’ve had many meetings with my school’s administration and district leadership, and so far, many of the conversations revolved around why the community’s complaints and criticisms are inadequate. Instead of being listened to, we are often berated about how ungrateful we are and urged to count our blessings for being able to go to school. This is very specific to my school, since the kids in Yemen (the home country for most of my peers at Universal Academy) don’t have this privilege. 

While it is important to remain thankful for the opportunities we do have, it’s equally imperative to recognize the injustices that still exist in our schools and remain critical of that. We must remember that what we do receive is the bare minimum. We shouldn’t have to be appreciative for a school where just last year alone, over 90% of the teachers were permanent substitutes, one that has a conjoined lunchroom, gymnasium, and auditorium, which is often used as a makeshift classroom. We are constantly told that we have the opportunity to join the Student Government in order to create the changes needed in our school. That way, we’re promised, we can speak one-on-one with the superintendent and other figure heads of the school.  

In retrospect, this seems like the perfect opportunity for our voices to be heard. Over the years however, it seems as if our complaints have just fallen on deaf ears because almost none of the most pressing concerns were ever met, or even followed up on. For example, last year during Student Government’s annual visit to the headquarters, known as the Support Center, of my school’s management company, at least three members (myself included) asked for the possibility of more Advanced Placement classes, in particular, an English one. The superintendent nodded, with her eyebrows bunched together in thought and assured us that she would for sure, one hundred percent “look into that.” She even made a point to insist that she would write it down, before she proceeded to take out a small notepad and pen.  I don’t know if she looked into the possibility of starting that class in my school, but I do know that she never got back to me, or any other student government members on that topic.

Looking back, the method my school mates and I have used in expressing our concerns hasn't been the most productive. There was never any set plan of how we’d bring up the issue, or even the ones we wanted to focus on.  It’s no wonder nothing has been done to solve these issues because of the sheer magnitude of things we highlighted at these meetings.

Since my first visit to Support Center, I’ve been trained thoroughly on how to conduct productive meetings, and how this can lead to positive change. This was done by joining many organizations outside of my school, the most influential being 482Forward. Through 482Forward, I was exposed to real life interactions with leaders, including conversing with the mayor, and the 2018 gubernatorial candidates. I’ve spoken at rallies, conferences, and on panels, and taken part in---and lead---campaigns aiming to create more equitable schools in the state. After all these years helping other schools, I feel like it’s my responsibility to bring this back to my own community and help create a change in the school I grew up in.

The best way, I thought, was to have a civil conversation with the superintendent during our annual Support Center visit. At this point, I should’ve known that conversation would prove to be meaningless, but I remained hopeful and thought it best to at least try. 

For the first time, I vowed to the approximately thirty other members sitting in the yellow bus, en route to Dearborn Heights, that it was my goal to have a productive conversation with the superintendent to finally get her to appreciate our frustrations regarding the simple changes we wanted to be made. Before the meeting, we asked the class presidents for all high school grades to compile a list of students’ demands. The answers were similar:

  1. More afterschool activities
  2. Diversity in AP and Honors classes
  3. Newer technology
  4. Less complicated dismissal system

I spent the ten-minute bus ride going over roles, and which questions we were going to ask and focus on. I also laid out some ground rules to ensure that the meeting would run smoothly, advising everyone to remain civil and smile, that there should only be one speaker at a time, and that no matter what is said, to never yell or get visibly angry. The last one is especially important, I stressed, because we don't want to look like a bunch of  kids who can't control their emotions. Unfortunately, as youth organizers, these are all the things we must be cognizant of if we want to be taken seriously.

For the first time since I joined Universal Academy’s student government, I walked into the Support Center with a concrete plan. We were confident and excited to talk to the superintendent. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned.

After going through a grueling training on Robert’s rules of order, and touring the surprisingly large office, we reached the point in the schedule most of us were waiting for: lunch. For some of us, we were finally ready to eat the free pizza - the main reason a handful of students actually went on the repetitive trip - and go through with our bulletproof plan. However, when the superintendent finally joined us (25 minutes later than scheduled) we were met with indirect hostility, and an intense defensive attitude.

The first thing we were told was that we couldn’t record anything that was happening, which was a little weird considering the meetings from the past two years were live streamed via the school’s Instagram. Then came the stalling and empty stories. We were asked what we were going to speak about, and told about all of the new things we should be grateful for. Attempting to stick to my rules, I tried to steer the conversation into the one we had planned. I also tried to start the Q&A we have done for years at board meetings, but was told that I was now “going into different avenues”, and that I should “give others the chance to speak up.” Surprisingly, the superintendent called me out by name, something I’ve never seen her do to any other student. The other Student Government members were shocked.

My classmates stared at me during the superintendent’s obvious filibustering, their frustration clear in their eyes. I knew that nothing that I’ve done through all of my years organizing and advocating could have prepared me for this. Like them, I was simply another frustrated student, not the leader I had been prepared to be. For a minute, I forgot who was supposed to be asking the questions, us or her?

Then came the lies. When my superintendent moved on from telling the same stories and lessons of gratitude she spoke of at the last NHS induction ceremony, she began to verbally target an education organization that has helped students across the State of Michigan. Though she didn't say the name of said organization, it was clear to everyone in the room who she was referring to. Our suspicions were answered when she pulled Wally to the side after the meeting and advised him to leave 482Forwrad since they were just playing with his mind. Amongst those lies, she accused that organization of paying politicians (although we do lobby, we use people power, not money), driving around and taking minors to meetings and events without the consent of their parents (there are permission slips for all events, and there are at minimum 2 parent meetings a year where we go over the calendar), and paying students to be their puppets (student members are given a stipend to be reimbursed for transportation for meetings only). They go into poor neighborhoods, she said, and try to target the youth. 

At that point, I didn't know what bothered me more, the fact that she was just straight up lying about a nonprofit  in front of a group of people, or that she painted youth organizers to be just groups of poor children with brains made of clay, perfect to be molded in order to help someone meet their political agenda. As there is concrete evidence that almost everything that was said was a lie, this was slanderous.

I find it extremely problematic when a leader of education begins to sound like a conspiracy theorist. It actually saddens me to think that my school’s superintendent would stoop so low as to spread rumors about the 501c3 that has led numerous campaigns to effectively prevent multiple school closures, collaborated with local residents in Southwest Detroit to advocate for parents to use any kind of ID, not just state issued, to be able to enter their child’s schools, and open opportunities to the students at Universal that they wouldn't have found elsewhere. And the worst part is that these are the excuses being used to explain the unfortunate circumstances at my school. One organization is not the reason behind Universal Academy’s low test-results, teacher shortage, and failure.  

My frustration is not with my superintendent herself, but instead, with both the lack of responsibility school leaders have towards the weaknesses in their schools, and with their attitude towards youth organizing.

Detroit’s student organizers, and organizations like 482Forward, want what school leaders should want-- great schools for all Detroit students. Instead of attacking us, they should be working with us to achieve that, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. Until then, we’ll continue working amongst ourselves for students who deserve it, whether that be necessary blogs like this one, protests, lobbying, or whatever, we will win this fight.


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