Every month, members of Oregon Student Voice come together to discuss and learn about a timely topic together. These meetings– completely student-led– are an opportunity for middle and high schoolers to share their opinions and experiences. The comments shared help OSV guide organization-wide efforts and inform other education stakeholders on students’ thoughts. This month, students across the state discussed their experiences with being youth activists.
Oregon Student Voice’s mission is to empower all students to actively engage with their K-12 education system. Through OSV’s three branches, we aim to create a network of youth activists across Oregon to enact change in their communities and statewide.
What is activism?
Firstly, students discussed what activism meant to them. Oxford Dictionary defines activism as “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” OSV members said youth activism takes many forms, from signing petitions, attending school-sanctioned activism events, protesting, raising awareness, and starting conversations. Members agreed that in the past year, activism for different causes has increased significantly. With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining record traction in 2020, students were drawn to youth activism and enacting change. Even just raising awareness benefits the cause, and should not be overlooked. Students generally felt that activism was more prevalent in high school, although this could be attributed to the increase in social awareness in the past two years. Across the membership base, students agreed activism had taught many valuable lessons.
The importance of youth activism
As a completely student-led organization, OSV stresses the importance of giving students a seat at the table. Students are the future and deserve a voice now to prepare for our eventual inheritance of this world. Members strive to improve their communities, not only for those currently affected, but also future generations. Youth activism helps students– who generally can’t vote– create a future that we want to inherit. As members of society with a fresh outlook, creative and modern mindsets, who aren’t bogged down by ‘how things have always been’, students are all important voices when tackling complex issues.
The lack of student activism was also identified as a problem by OSV members. Historically, youth have had some of the lowest turnout rates among other age demographics. However, in the 2020 election, youth turned out to vote in record numbers. This change is a step in the right direction, but is nowhere near the destination. Youth activists need to start conversations with their peers in order to enact change and educate other students to help our communities grow. Without the initiative to enter conversations, discussions on students’ education ignore students’ opinions. OSV members agreed that students need to disrupt this norm perpetuated by America’s primarily older leaders. Too often, students are forced onto the sidelines on issues like climate change, discrimination, and their education that impact our present and future. Our rapidly changing world, from the pandemic to social movements to technological advances, means adults’ expertise is no longer always reliable. Especially with issues related to distance learning, those in power need to focus on the voices of students who are currently living through the experience.
Youth activism and mental health
OSV members also discussed some personal difficulties with balancing activism and being a full-time student. As an organization, OSV prioritizes students’ mental wellbeing in all spheres, including activism. Youth activists commonly face burn-out, which is defined as “when a political or social activist feels overwhelmed, frustrated, hopeless, or depressed, usually after a period of extensive activism,” as defined by Good Therapy. Often, youth activists feel that if they take a break, the other side on the issue will begin to get the upper hand. This mental state forces students to continue their work, at the detriment of their mental health. A lack of productive conversations also makes students feel misunderstood and hopeless. Students feel it’s difficult to engage the community to enact change when community members don’t listen.
OSV members gave some advice to maintain mental wellbeing as a youth activist. First, understanding how strenuous activism can be and allowing yourself to feel stressed. The word “active”ism implies a necessity to constantly work, however this isn’t sustainable. Finding ways to destress and having realistic expectations were two ways students handle burnout. Additionally, focusing on key aspects of an issue to tackle once at a time helps to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Solutions to Barriers to Youth Activism
One of the biggest barriers students faced was a lack of engaging discussions. Students often feel like they’re speaking to a brick wall. Opposers to social change being advocated for often listen to refute, instead of listening to engage in health dialogue. Especially within schools, students see a clash between youth activists and other students who ridicule their efforts. Often, schools don’t have a culture of authentic student voice, making youth activists’ efforts an uphill battle against multiple opponents. Schools need to empower students in their schools to be involved with their community’s issues and prepare students for inheriting our world. Our nation’s schools are educating the world’s future leaders, and thus must build leadership and activism skills now.
Another sphere lacking meaningful conversations is in students’ households. Especially with stay at home orders due to the pandemic, students have been spending increased time at home with their family, sparking conversations about the current social movements. Many members felt that there wasn’t a home environment that allowed for productive conversations about political or social issues. While youth want to engage in discussions with their family members, they often turn into arguments and high emotions. OSV members voiced a desire for older family members to be more open minded with student voices.
Despite their ever growing importance, youth activists constantly feel like they’re fighting an uphill battle. As a statewide community, Oregonians need to work to make students– and all other activists– feel comfortable voicing their opinions. At home, at school, and in front of legislators, students need to feel valued when expressing their thoughts. The youth are the future, and it’s time to start allowing us to prepare ourselves.
Emily Zou is a sophomore at Lakeridge High School and serves as the Co-Executive Director of Recruitment and Trainings for Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.