Reprinted with permission. First appeared as an interview piece on ChalkBloggers, Chalkboard Project's Blog about education innovation reaching educators across Oregon.
We recently sat down with Ebado Abdi, a senior at West View High School in Beaverton, to find out more about an issue she is passionate about–elevating student voice. An active member of Oregon Student Voice, Ebado has great insight about how students are powerful change agents and how students and educators can work together to improve our school system.
This is your last year of high school before you go to college, looking back how was your overall experience in school?
Growing up I never really felt that I had a voice because no one told me I did, it was more about getting good grades. In school, the focus was more on math, science, and English.
When I started getting into leadership roles, like [becoming] the president of the Red Cross Club in my junior year of high school, I saw how much my opinion mattered. I could influence a lot of things because I was in a leadership role. Once I became president people started treating me differently and I was valued more, especially by the adults in my school. It was then that I started questioning everything and I realized how much power I could actually have in education.
Is there equity in your school? How is it discussed and how do you feel about it?
My school likes to celebrate its diversity but [when they celebrate diversity] it is more tokenism. While they understand that there is racism and discrimination, my school doesn’t really know how to approach it. For example, they might take one black student and put them on a poster and say “we are equal!” But our school often chooses one kid to represent a whole group. The message is this is the one black kid [that epitomizes success] and every student should be like him or her, the rest are not important, they are insignificant.
I have a counselor who is trying to address racism at our school and when he first told me that, I was like “Good luck with that. We have been trying to address racism in our school for years”. But I see his approach as different. He is discussing it with me and other students of color. He is really creating a dialogue. He is asking for our opinions about the problem and how teachers can help all students become exceptional. I definitely appreciate him approaching students to ask for their input. I have never seen this approach in my four years in high school until now.
Do you feel that student voice is valued?
People are beginning to change their mindset about this. At my school, teachers are realizing that today students are on social media talking about current events. Students talk a lot about politics—racism and discrimination—and I think teachers have realized that students understand these issues, we have opinions, and genuine concerns about them.
In Oregon Student Voice my opinions are valued. At school, if you don’t have the right answer, you don’t raise your hand, but in Oregon Student Voice there isn’t really a “right answer,” we listen to everyone’s opinions. Also, OSV enables me to meet students from different schools who are doing such great things. Building these relationships is very encouraging and motivates me to want to do my best.
Do you think that Oregon Student Voice can make a change in schools?
Yes, because it really gives students a platform. For a longtime it has just been adults who have tried to address what is wrong with K-12 schools but now we have students who are trying to change things. Students are directly affected by issues in school so we have a good idea of what is wrong. OSV is also analyzing data from our statewide student survey, which will be released in early March, to help legitimatize what we address.
Often, if an adult tries to talk to a student about what is wrong, students get intimidated. OSV created listening tours, which we held across the state of Oregon with high school students, and we found that when students talk directly with other students, there is an open conversation. OSV is creating a bridge between the adults and students.
In working with Oregon Student Voice, have you learned important skills about how to effectively collaborate with adults?
That is a good question, I think that confidence is important. If you are timid and shy, often times you are not taken seriously. I think that if you can justify your opinions adults take you more seriously. If I came up to a teacher and tried to talk to them about the school system, they most likely will treat me like a kid. But if I tell them, I have been involved in a lot of organizations that work on social justice and student voice, and then state my opinion, then the adults are more responsive and not dismissive.
Do you have advice to give to students on how to successfully approach and talk to teachers?
To effectively talk to teachers about your concerns you need to articulate yourself in a way where you can have a sustained, long conversation. Don’t get nervous, state your opinions. Prepare yourself so that you have a good idea of what you want to say so that you can be articulate.
Oregon Student Voice has three main initiatives: Amplify, Empower, and Thrive. Which initiative are you most excited about? Why?
I don’t want to be biased, because I am part of Empower, but I would say Empower! We are planning a rally for the fall which allows us to meet students from all over Oregon who are interested in this issue and who may want to become active OSV members. We will talk about student voice, including how we can create equity and give students a platform. The students who attend will then take what they learned back to their schools and start student/adult partnerships to target issues specific to their schools.
How can adults support students to become leaders?
Teaching leadership skills alongside math, science, and English could be a start. A lot of times students believe their teachers or administrators don’t care what they have to say but most of the time I believe they do. It is just that students need to hear that they can be leaders and work with adults.