How To Start An Anti-Racist Student Group In Your School
Above Photo: by Chloe Collyer
The painful truth about public education is that racism is as common as bored students and overworked teachers. While many in our home of Seattle take pride in the city’s “progressive” reputation, the students of Seattle Public Schools, especially students of Color, know reality starkly contrasts with this reputation.
In fact, Seattle Public Schools is home to some of the worst racial disparities in the entire country – and the district has known about them for decades and decades. Yet little has changed – exemplified recently by a white teacher calling 911 on a 10 to 11-year-old Black child. To make matters worse, district leaders rarely invite students, those most negatively impacted by this racist system, to the racial-equity problem-solving table.
In Seattle, we decided to stop waiting for an invitation. The NAACP Youth Coalition (N-YC), a coalition of antiracist youth representing 12 high schools and universities in the Seattle area, formed to put a stop to the above realities. In the past two years, we have hosted anti-racism workshops for youth, organized youth panels for educators, and led school board mobilizations. As a result of our efforts, the Seattle School Board endorsed the Black Lives Matter at School movement, one of the first school boards in the nation to do so.
In these two years of activism, we have learned many lessons on organizing and making change, lessons we want to share with both the youth and educators so that the movement for racial justice can continue to spread.
Step 1: Find like-minded, passionate people in your school
Where there is racism, there are people committed to fighting it. Schools are no exception. It’s just a matter a finding them. And starting small is perfectly fine. As Marge Piercy writes in “The low road,” “Three people are a delegation, a committee, a wedge.”
As an individual, students may not feel comfortable or safe enough to confront racism in your community, especially if it is coming from an authority figure. At Ballard High School, clubs such as Multicultural Committee offer a restorative and safe space for students of Color to voice concerns, celebrate their culture, or simply vent. Your school likely offers something similar or has ethnicity-specific groups such as a Black Student Union.
If not, many buildings usually have at least one visible antiracist teacher, who is likely connected with the youth most invested in antiracism. In the case of the NAACP Youth Coalition, we identified committed students across Seattle Public Schools through Social Equity Educators, an action-oriented caucus of Seattle’s educators union.
The group that forms will be essential, not just for completing the subsequent steps, but also to provide a network of support in work that can be draining. Furthermore, there is safety in numbers, as students, teachers and administrators have power over us. They may be able to abuse that power with one student, but it becomes far more difficult with a unified group. Having a support network not only keeps you safe, but it can inspire students and hold the school accountable as the group moves forward with challenging racism.
Step 2: Research past and current changemakers for guidance and inspiration
You may find that your history textbooks have skimmed over or silenced voices calling for radical change – especially if those voices belonged to people of Color.
For instance, the skewed narrative that puts European “settlers” (virtually never called “colonizers”), not Native Americans, as the protagonists of United States history perpetuates white supremacy. Although textbooks have finally begun to acknowledge the egregious crimes committed against Native people in this country, they still fail to recognize the tenacity and strength of these people. By educating yourself on the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island, you are reframing the power imbalance that we’ve been taught.
To challenge the sanitized narratives we learn in school, seek out books and essays written by authors of Color. Watch documentaries like Precious Knowledge and Agents of Change about the youth-centered struggles for ethnic studies. Scour the Internet, find podcasts, and then discuss them with your friends. Educate yourself on the struggles and successes of different ethnic and racial groups across history. Forming a holistic worldview will prepare you for activism that respects the voices and perspectives of those who have too often been written out of our history classes.
Social justice work is rooted in community, but it begins with an individual’s willingness to learn and grow. You can’t always control other people’s mindsets, but you will always have the capacity to educate yourself.
Step 3: Establish core values
It’s important to know what you’re fighting for. You’ll need to establish core values to set a foundation for your group or community. Why? Well, sometimes people have disagreements or get carried away with outside drama. In those moments (which will happen) when you need to pull everyone together, core values will remind everyone why they gathered for social justice in the first place.
There’s a reason why organizations have mission statements; they help establish the group’s core values. Before we even had a name for our group, the founders of the NAACP Youth Coalition put antiracism at the center, recruiting students who had already been doing the same at their schools.
Step 4: Turn your values into demands
Once you have your core values, turn them into actionable items you want to get done or change you want to see. You believe in racial equity? Great! How is your school going to get there?
One of the first priorities of the N-YC at the start each year has been collaboratively establishing our demands. During this past year, we decided on eight (read the full text here).
The NAACP Youth Coalition demands that the Seattle Public School district:
- support the #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool actions indefinitely;
- improve its curricula, including mandatory Ethnic Studies, to better serve all students;
- increase opportunities to integrate voices of students of Color into its decision-making processes;
- prioritize the occupied renovation of Rainier Beach High School;
- fund post-secondary opportunities in an equitable way;
- improve its discipline practices, implementing restorative justice district-wide;
- prioritize training staff of all schools as well as central office staff on issues of race, equity, and racism, even if schools fail to apply for to Race & Equity Teams; and
- prioritize hiring and retaining more staff of color in all buildings regardless of demographics.
After launching the NAACP Youth Coalition on Martin Luther King Day in 2018, each school board testimony we gave, workshop we attended or put on, and event we participated in has been in an effort to further our demands. Our demands are increasingly becoming part of the conversations at Seattle Public Schools, as they have been distributed at Racial Equity Team trainings, as well as the district’s Youth and Family Racial Justice Summit and Ethnic Studies Summer Institute!
By no means is your list of actions or demands permanent, especially if your demands are actually being met, as was the case with the Seattle School Board endorsing the Black Lives Matter at School week of action. Since our membership continues to evolve and grow, we will revisit them each year to ensure they reflect the will and needs of our current members.
Regardless, your demands should always align with your core values.
Step 5: Start a club at your school and plan fun activities
Now that you have committed youth, core values, and a list of demands, formalize your group! Clubs are a great way to take action within your school and the greater community. I know it can be exciting but remember to take your time to think out details of your club. Not all schools require a club constitution but we highly recommend making one! A club constitution forces you to think about the purpose, membership, duties, and responsibilities of your club – helpful and necessary steps if you want your club to be strong and organized.
After you’ve gotten your club approved you can start thinking of how to market your club. For marketing, you should definitely be using social media like Instagram or Twitter. Using your Snapchat story is also a great way to advertise. Just think about what platforms you have and how you can use those to your advantage. You can also go “old school” and design posters to hang up around school. Lastly, if your school begins the day with daily announcements, advertise your club through this existing channels.
Next is planning club activities. Yes, your club should be focused on making change, but there’s no reason not to have some fun while you do, especially at the start. For your first meeting, draw crowds in with food (because we all know that students love free food). Make sure to tell everyone about your meeting schedule and social media presence, which helps your fellow students stay connected and aware of the events happening with your club.
Another fun idea for club activities is potlucks! Potlucks are a fun way to bring a community together while also eating some bomb food. Ever heard of a joint potluck? Sometimes joining up with other clubs to do a collab potluck can symbolize allyship and respect. For example, if your club is associated with a specific race and a core value is supporting Black Lives Matter movement, then it might be awesome to do a joint potluck with your school’s Black Student Union! Not only will this bring more people but it opens a conversation around allyship and the BLM movement all in one event.
Crafts are always a fun activity, such as collage making with old magazines, poster making, or any art piece that speaks on cultural identity, oppression, and liberation. Asking art teachers that you trust is always a good idea. If a tragic incident has happened in the world or in your community, making a memorial to visually display peace, love, and justice is always beautiful.
Of course, maybe an antiracist club already exists in your school, in which case: join an existing club! Sometimes you don’t have the time or availability to make a club, and that’s totally okay! Just because you aren’t a physical leader of your own club doesn’t mean you can’t make change. Join an existing club and don’t be afraid to speak your truth and what you believe in. Existing clubs are looking for passionate new members. Whatever your role, you and your voice matters!
Step 6: Find and create opportunities to make change
Okay, so you’ve done your research. You’ve got core values, a list of demands, and a group that meets regularly. Now it’s time to find and create opportunities that accomplish your goals. What posters, activities, or conversations can you create? Who can you partner with to create them? How will this accomplish your intended goal(s) or reach your audience?
None of those questions has just one answer or an answer that is “right.” There are many ways to take action, and what’s best for your group largely depends on the individual circumstances: the nature of your club, your school community, how supportive (or hostile) your school administration is.
Some groups have used heritage months as educational opportunities for schools in which whitewashed curricula are the default to show that marginalized groups in the school are indeed valued. For example, if it happens to be May, Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month, then maybe you watch Crazy Rich Asians with your Asian and Pacific Islander club to open a discussion about the importance of racial representation in the media.
Once you are a formally recognized club, it’s easier to influence your school. As part of school clubs, NAACP Youth Coalition members have led staff trainings and organized assemblies, both on issues of race and racism. At the building level, don’t be afraid to email teachers, administration, and department heads about the change you want to see happen in your school.
To make change at even bigger level, N-YC frequently targets the Seattle School Board, the elected body in charge of the district policy. In Seattle, this body – along with the superintendent, who is hired by the Board – has the power to turn our demands into a reality. Our school board mobilization to promote the national demands of Black Lives Matter at School, demands that align perfectly with our own, gained significant media attention (here, here, and here), which increases our influence with district leaders.
Step 7: Get funding
During the NAACP Youth Coalition’s first year, a couple of Seattle School Board directors reached out to meet with the group. At this meeting, the Directors told the group that to make change, they need to keep showing up at school board meetings. This response revealed a fundamental flaw with the system: it requires privilege to fight for racial equity.
If you are facing multiple, interlocking systems of oppression, who has the time or ability to keep showing up to pressure school board directors? Furthermore, we can’t leave it to the privileged to lead the fight for racial equity, as they are the ones who least understand racism and other forms of oppression.
Rita Green, education chair of the local NAACP and one of the group’s founding adults, had a solution: pay the youth for their antiracism efforts.Green applied for and landed a Best Starts for Kids grant, which meant that our group’s youth could receive a stipend for N-YC’s many efforts. No longer do adult coordinators have to ask students to volunteer their time to make change.
During our first year, before the grant, the group only represented a few schools, mostly in the more affluent North End of Seattle, and membership declined by the end of the year. With the grant, however, at the end of year two, our membership is larger than ever!