Written by Mohan Sivaloganathan, in partnership with Our Turn’s Student Advisory Board
Imagine being hungry, stepping into a restaurant with hopes of nourishment, only to be presented with a limited, unsatisfying menu. Or worse, someone has already decided what you are going to eat, and you know from previous experience it will make you sick. Or further still, what if someone believed you didn’t need to be served, because serving you would be inconvenient? Now you’re upset, and still hungry!
In America, we pride ourselves on shaping the terms of our present and future. We grow up believing a promise that if you work hard, you can realize your dreams, not somebody else’s dream, but rather your own aspirations of success. Yet when it comes to America’s young people, too many adults have broken this promise.
The gravity of this situation is apparent when looking at the education system. At the nonprofit Our Turn, we activate the agency of youth to create a just education system that can fulfill America’s promise. Over 80 percent of our members are students of color or first-generation American students who have experienced racial inequities that perpetuate a widening opportunity gap, from discriminatory teaching practices to limited access to high quality curriculum and courses. Our Turn members respond by organizing campaigns with culture-shifting storytelling that speaks truth to power and moves the needle for underserved students.
When it comes to business, it’s conventional wisdom that understanding the needs of key stakeholders is essential for success. Fail to engage them or ignore their needs is a recipe for failure. The same is true in the classroom. Yet, adults–often from afar–have imposed decisions without engaging young people, creating a vacuum that lacks proximity to those most disenfranchised by an inequitable system: students of color.
When it comes to business, it’s conventional wisdom that understanding the needs of key stakeholders is essential for success. Fail to engage them or ignore their needs is a recipe for failure. The same is true in the classroom.
The cost of we-know-what’s-best-for-you decision making is huge. The approach limits the identification of quality solutions, because it doesn’t start with the real problems. Young people have the greatest awareness of the deficits within the public education system. They live and breathe these realities every day. Their experience is authentic and provides valuable context to guide design, implementation, and narratives, but their input is rarely sought. While extraordinary youth every day find their way through the system, we need a system that makes all young people ‘response-able’ as well as responsible. In order to do that young people need adults in order to restore—or perhaps build for the first time—a just system. What they need are co-conspirators.
What does that mean? When we co-conspire, we enter a partnership—a relationship built on trust, buy-in, and emotional intelligence. When we co-conspire, we have mutual investment in a common goal. Our pathways to the goal may differ, but we are harmonized in the effort. When we co-conspire, we support each other, even if we aren’t in the same room. And we build a foundation for smarter, stronger solutions. Co-conspiring requires three vital steps.
Too often, adults map out the futures of young people without knowing what young people actually need—and reasonably want. Even for those decision makers with positive intentions, their visions are limited by the constructs of the past and shaped by their own experiences, as opposed to what young people are envisioning for themselves. We see the worst form of this approach in disenfranchised communities, where too many administrators, school board members, and others in power determine that some kids simply aren’t cut out to make it, whether in college, jobs, or other aspects of civil society. This discouraging vision imposes a glass ceiling on young people before they even have a chance to discover their potential.
When a need emerges or the budget season rolls around, or a strategic plan must be written, we should demand an opportunity co-envision the future. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, when the superintendent and school board identified the need to “redesign” the district, we jumped at the opportunity to help shape the vision. Our Turn’s staff and members held focus groups with students from every high school in the district, asked them about their experiences and aspirations, and built a coalition of community partners to elevate their recommendations. The result was a vision for the local school district, and in partnership with our staff and allies, students now have a stronger platform to bring their vision to fruition.
It’s not a secret that diversity is a successful strategy for top performing organizations. Diversity leads to representation and inclusion, which creates an environment where the best ideas can rise to the surface. Young people are heralded for their audacity, ingenuity, compassion, and entrepreneurial spirit—so why wouldn’t we harness their creative, problem-solving capabilities? Co-design means we translate our co-envisioned future into solutions that tap our collective brain power. Adults and young people alike should have an equitable environment to ask questions, challenge the status quo, propose solutions, debate, and ultimately determine the path ahead.
Consider the example of Los Angeles, California, a large and diverse city with a long history of contention among adults regarding the future of children. With a major school board election around the corner, we seized moment to shape a narrative that centers on youth voice. We hosted a candidate forum, but not the typical event where candidates hit the stage and rattle off talking points. Our staff and students surveyed young people and parents across the community to identify their concerns, and we translated that insight into specific questions for the candidates. Those questions set a fresh tone for the local education conversation and established a foundation for real, positive change.
All of us can point to a moment in our childhood when our rebellious side broke out. It happens when someone puts us in a box, from dictating what we wear to determining what we do. Rebellion not only stems from a confrontation with someone in power, but also from our desire to exercise independence. Young people thrive on being true to ourselves. While traditional power structures might see this as threatening, it can actually be the catalyst that brings us together. Our independence fosters community and the confidence that we can be our best selves.
When we co-create, we give each player at the table the opportunity to personalize our co-designs. We enhance the strength and prospects of our co-envisioning process because we’re unleashing everyone’s power. In Charlotte, North Carolina, long standing issues of inequity were compounded by broken programs around recovering academic credit. Students who enrolled in academic credit recovery programs were stereotyped as uninterested students and simply dismissed—before they had a chance. We confronted this situation head-on by organizing students to advocate for changes to the recovery programs, with a co-created solution built on unique stories and experiences. This fresh approach led the district to shape a new policy focused on greater transparency, uniformity, and accountability. Students took a seat at the table and co-created the future, which deepened collective investment in a quality educational experience.
With the challenge of a global pandemic, there is even a greater demand for new roles and new rules for a fundamental shift toward an equitable education system, which is foundational to our ability to deal with all other issues, from climate crisis to income inequality. It’s a rare window of opportunity to re-imagine the future. History will remember those who truly innovated, who challenged the status quo and emerged with collective solutions–and a path that will enable us to finally fulfill our promises to all.