Speak Truth: Want Student Engagement? Be Current.

On Thursday, November 5, students from throughout the greater Washington, DC area gathered to discuss the topic, “COVID and Voter Suppression.” Student facilitators Lola Rogan, an 11th grader at DC International, and Sean Beach, a 12th grader at Friendship Tech Prep Academy, began the discussion by asking their peers what was stressing them out most. The chorus of responses was pretty evenly split among COVID, school, and the election that at that time was still undecided. Of the 30+ high school students assembled, only one had been old enough to cast her ballot. Still, over the next hour, it was clear that they were all paying attention to the unprecedented events unfolding that week. Participants noted that the ability to discuss something so timely represented a stark departure from what they normally experience in school. 

Student facilitators Lola Rogan, an 11th grader at DC International, and Sean Beach a 12th grader at Friendship Tech Prep Academy

“I’ve had to do discussions for school, like Socratic seminars. And none of them have been as engaged as this and I think a lot of that is because if we have to discuss something in school it’s going to be what we’ve been talking about in class,” explained one student. “It’s going to be ‘analyze this speech and discuss it with your classmates’ and we don’t get to choose that so no one’s going to care. I think that that’s why this is such a great format. I try to engage in classes but it’s honestly a lot harder if I don’t care and I don’t have a personal relationship with the material. It’s just a lot easier to engage with other students when you choose the topic.”

Another concurred, noting the missed opportunities they experience in school to connect learning to what’s happening right now in the world. “If you really want our engagement in things, just be current. One thing that I love about Speak Truth is that you asked us what kind of topic we wanted to talk about. And I think that’s what schools should start doing overall. That would make us actually want to engage.”

Understanding Voter Suppression

To prepare for the discussion Lola and Sean asked their peers to read a New Statesmen article titled US democracy in peril: Covid-19 and the threat of voter suppression. They opened the session by inviting participants to share what they knew about “ways that voter suppression has affected Black people and other minorities.”

“Before, Black people were directly told ‘you cannot vote because we see you as less than human,’” explained Micah, an 11th grader at School Without Walls. “Now it’s disguised as more of a class issue. That goes back to generational wealth and past voter suppression.” 

“Racism, if we’ve learned anything, is extremely adaptable to the times, especially as we’re seeing right now,” said Duane, a 12th grader at Thurgood Marshall Academy. 

“The whole purpose of democracy is to give voice to the people, but voter suppression takes away that voice,” said Emma, a 10th grader at Washington Latin Public Charter School.

The Role of Prisons in Voter Suppression

Students noted the role that our prison system plays in limiting citizens’ rights to vote. They discussed laws in different states that hinder a formerly incarcerated person’s ability to cast a ballot. R’Nasia, a 12th grader at Friendship Tech Prep, wrote in the chat, “Prison can be considered the modern slavery and there are a lot of Black men in prison, and they cannot vote. This is another way of keeping Black people from voting.”

“Even if they went to prison they should still have the right to vote just like anybody else,” said Kalil, an 11th grader at Paul Public Charter School. 

Ella, a 9th grader at Washington Latin PCS, shared that she testified at a city council hearing a year ago on the subject. “It’s important to interact with your local policy officials,” she said. Doing that “made me feel like I made a difference and if more people did that it might push more states to change which would really help.” 

Playing a Role Moving Forward

As the discussion wound to a close, Lola and Sean invited students to share what they thought could be done to address voter suppression. Duane responded, “We really need agency, racial equity, and financial literacy. These are the three things that we really need if this is something that we want to stop.”

Sean pointed to the importance of young people having a voice right now.

“I feel like if we are the future we have to be in the present, we have to be working toward a better future for ourselves. These discussions will help us build toward a better future for ourselves.”

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