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In Their Own Words: Students Share Lessons Learned From Organizing And Protesting

Scenes from Los Angeles Sunday, May 31, 2020, during the fifth day of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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"This isn't new to us," 18-year-old Asia Bryant told me earlier this week.

Stories and data show that schools are not safe havens from the kind of racial injustices being highlighted by recent protests.

Students have been out there on the front lines, but their voices have not often been heard in the media coverage of this week's demonstrations.

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We wanted to listen to young people and to hear - in their own words - about their experiences.

So I reached out to students involved in fighting for justice in the classroom, about the lessons they're learning from what's happening outside of the school setting.

Their responses are transcribed excerpts from interviews I conducted this week. They have been edited for length and clarity. We're not using the minors' last names to protect their privacy.

Brooklyn, 16, has been involved with organizing since her freshman year of high school. (Courtesy of Brooklyn)

Brooklyn, 16, is a youth leader with Community Coalition's South Central Youth Empowered thru Action. She first got involved after attending a meeting as a freshman. Next year, she will be a senior at Crenshaw High School. Here's what she told me:

My school environment in ninth grade was very negative. It didn't really feel like a school. It just did not feel like a second home. It felt like a prison.

I get along with everybody - or at least try to include everybody in everything, including adults, children, everybody my age, anybody. I tried to have a relationship with cops, but they don't talk. They're very intimidating and it makes me very unsafe having them inside the school because you never know what they're doing. They're just there, walking up and down the halls.

We started talking about the budget for schools and the LA budget and where the money is going, and as youth, how we could get our voices out there. We did a lot of talking and talking to people in charge and everything, but it seemed like a lot of other problems were overpowering that problem.

You can listen to Brooklyn share her experiences by clicking play below:

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I went to a board meeting when we went to go talk about the budget and giving it to lower income schools rather than higher income schools. We did do a little small march around before going in, but nothing like what was happening Saturday.

I chose to go to the rally in Beverly Hills because I wanted to protest with my people. It was a very peaceful protest. They had people giving speeches, getting people to sign petitions.

It was amazing. It was young toddlers, older children, older people. Everybody was there, from every age group.

Being a black female in America right now and being able to go to rally on Saturday meant a lot to me.

Things started to change when we got to a certain point in our march, Fairfax and some other street. That's when the cops showed up.

I was fine at first, but once I saw them get out their cars with their gear on, with their bullet guns and other weapons, I was very scared, because none of us had a weapon. Not a single one of us. We all had a sign. That's it.

After a while of us standing there, my organizer decided it was time for me to go. It wasn't safe anymore.

We're talking about a peaceful youth protest. It's gonna be a little difficult. We're trying to get all the parents on board because, you know, these are youth. Our group was talking about trying to get people to sign these petitions and to rally with us about the budget for LA, trying to get more money to the schools.

It just makes me feel so sad that our generation - my generation, the younger generation - have to step in and use our voices to talk about the problem.

I can't even say I want us to sit down and have the conversation because it feels too late to have a conversation. There's no time to talk anymore. It's time for actions. It's time for them to make changes.

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Asia Bryant, 18, joined the youth-led organization Students Deserve at the beginning of her senior year. This year, she is graduating from Hamilton High School. Here's what she said to me:

The reason why I became involved in Students Deserve was through a teacher. I had no prior knowledge of what it meant to become an advocate for students, let alone an advocate for myself.

The most recent issue that we were addressing at the [Students Deserve] General Assembly that I went to, was the banning of pepper spray [in schools].

We came up with strategies. We said, "What was the problem? Why is it that the people who were pepper sprayed were predominantly black students? What was something that could have been done to correct that? What should we do? What are our next steps to build this campaign, so that it brings attention to our superintendent?"

It all starts within our school system.

Another topic that was discussed was the school-to-prison pipeline, where some schools would lead some African American students, minorities, straight into the prison system and the justice system unfairly. All because school systems failed them and failed to provide them with the necessary resources.

I am so happy and so proud that this conversation is coming about, where they're starting to see a pattern of how this came to be, and what students deserve.

This isn't new to us. Everything that's happening -- everything that's being talked about -- has already been ongoing. It's just been swept under the rug and just avoided because people didn't want to have this type of conversation, because it made them feel uncomfortable. Well, then it's like, "how do you think we feel?"

I have been to protests, but not necessarily a protest like this one -- where we were protesting the end of gun violence, the protest for the end of random searches.

At first I was a little bit unsure, because of corona, and I know police presence is going to be there and I don't know how they're going to react.

So it was last minute. I woke up right at 12. And I said, "Hey, Mom, is it okay if I can go to this protest?"

And she said no.

She probably was nervous because she'd been watching the news, hearing about what's going on, and she didn't know how it was going to play out. If I was there and she couldn't get to me.

I told her a bunch of my friends are already there. I'm not going just on my own.

It was beautiful. It was peaceful up to the point where police showed up. And that's when things took a shift in the atmosphere.

There was a moment where I said, "hey, it's time for me to go."

I went home.

[My mom] asked me, "how was the protest? You're back really early." I said, "Mom, it was intense."

I learned you don't stop fighting. You just can't stop fighting because I feel like the moment that you choose to stop fighting is the moment where you've chosen the side of the oppressor. So I feel like I can take that message back and just spread it across to everyone.

We are taking risk. We are just out there, making sure that our voices are heard because we've been silenced for so long. And so that's why I'm proud to be involved in this type of work, because it's teaching me so much as an advocate, as an organizer, because I know how to construct these conversations, how to organize solutions.

Even though I'm graduating, I hope I see an increase in resources and increase in mental health. Because as of right now, black and brown students are suffering in school systems, we're not obtaining the necessary resources that we need... we're not the highest and top priority. We're being criminalized within our own schools, within our own school system.

Amee, 17, has organized with the grassroots organization Students Deserve for three years. (Courtesy of Amee)

Amee, 17, attends Dorsey High School and has been organizing with Students Deserve for the past four years. Here's what Amee said to me:

Students Deserve is a grassroots coalition of parents, students and teachers that fight for justice, and what that means for us is just making schools a safer place for black, brown and Muslim students when it comes to challenging, oppressive systems like the school to prison pipeline and overpolicing in our schools.

First, I was taking part in our 'End Random Searches' initiative, which was a campaign that lasted three years to try and get rid of the random wanding and backpack searches.

This policy would disproportionately affect black and brown and Muslim students in low income communities.

When I first joined Students Deserve I was very shy and not super outspoken.

I feel like there's an image that all politicians put out there that "we work for you" that "we are public servants for you," and that "we will listen to the people's ideas" and "I will do my best to represent you, represent our community in this official board," but I would say that it takes pressure from students to have a room and space at the table for them to actually bring it. And I would say that that's really exemplified by the fact that [the random search policy] took three years to end.

In school, I feel like all we learn is about the American Revolution in history. All we learned is the American Revolution, slavery and a short story about the civil rights movement. And that's really it. We don't learn a lot about the labor movement, about the gay rights movement, or the women's suffrage movement or the little tiny movements and the rebellions that happen in between all that.

What I've learned through teachers who are willing to teach the real history of America and the people who have fought for our rights here, and the peer education that I get from Students Deserve: it's the rebellions that make change. It's people standing up and being loud and deciding to not be silent, and also to not be still, that is what makes change.

And I feel like I really learned that firsthand, over the three years of organizing about the end random searches campaign, before the student strike happened in January of 2019. And that really showed me that protesting and that disrupting is really what makes change.

I really sympathize with these protesters who are willing to risk their lives and just spread a message. And the message is to defund the police, which aligns with our partner organization, Black Lives Matter LA. Their demands are to defund the police and to prosecute killer cops and I really feel and love everybody that is putting their lives on the line for black lives.

And this also connects to what Students Deserve is asking for in schools: more psychiatric social workers and peer mediation or a peer counseling class and other resources that are centered around mental health and student well-being other than policing.

What Students Deserve uses is the divest-invest model that we have modeled after BLM, where we divest from criminalization and police, and invest in health, in psychiatric social workers, and counselors, and more teachers and more nurses and all the stuff that actually makes a community and actually makes students feel safe, instead of cops. We believe in care, not cops. And I feel like officials are hearing this everywhere.

It matters that this is happening to youth because students are in school for very much of their young adult life. For eight hours of the day, five days a week. And for police to be around us - in our schools, in our classrooms waiting on us in the morning when we come into school, for such a violent symbol to be in young developing people's faces every day - it is not right. It feels like youth are attending prep schools for prison.

What kind of message are we sending our young people and the educators who work at schools?

Valentin, 17, attends Esteban Torres High School and organizes with InnerCity Struggle.Here's what Valentin told me:

I was organizing before, but it was usually through artistic platforms such as poetry, theatre, and then I was told by a student that if I was really passionate about social activism, I should probably link up with InnerCity Struggle.

And I did that, and now here we are.

There's a lot of work we do. Some examples that come to mind are our civic engagement. We have done a lot of work getting people to pre-register to vote. That's something we've done a lot of. We also gathered as many petitions as possible to expand the voter age range to 16. We work hard spreading the word of the census, the Schools and Communities First Act.

We've educated our communities on housing rights, too. I come from a family that - we've gone through poverty, we've had to move a lot. We've had to find and readjust to a lot of new spaces. And that's definitely something I'm very passionate about. And I just feel like I'm really giving back to my community because that's something that hits so close to where I'm from and where I come from.

The reason why I think it's important to take youth voices into account is every major decision that's being made today is gonna affect tomorrow

The decisions that are being made now will affect the people today. But the ones who have to pick up the consequences and deal with them most directly are the youth we're the ones who have to recuperate from any mistakes that are made today

It's so hard going through something like this during a time like this, because there's so many youth who are so passionate, who have such strong beliefs, and such eloquent and well-spoken words that they'd like to share, but they simply don't have the platform to do so. Especially during the pandemic. There are a lot of parents who are scared of that and won't let their children participate.

I personally haven't been able to participate in any of the in-person protests that have been going on, which is unfortunate because I feel the need to and I definitely, it's something that I want to, but I haven't participated in respects to my family's wishes. They're very afraid of what's going on, and I completely understand why they're scared, whether it be COVID-19, or the extreme use of police force. And if I were to go out to protest, I'd leave my mother afraid and awake all night. And that's something that I don't want to do.

What I have been doing is taking time to respond and have conversations with folks.

I identify as Hispanic. Amongst my community, I've seen a lot of people complaining of the label, Black Lives Matter and try to bring up "well, Hispanic lives matter too."

So I've responded to one of these posts. I let them know what I was advocating for when I use the term Black Lives Matter.

I made sure to call this individual and see how they were doing and I wanted to make sure that nothing I said offended them or hurt them, and they seemed to understand. They expressed to me that they were just frustrated and they want to change. And I said, "I understand that. But if you want change, we all need to fight together with this." The person then took down the post that they were making, and now I see that they're standing in solidarity with the movement, which is something I'm very proud of.

Situations like this give me hope. Because they show me that mentalities can change

It could just take one person to show the slightest bit of empathy or sympathy. It could just take one conversation, or one phone call, or one gesture. And I feel like that's gone unnoticed during these fights. Sometimes we're so busy trying to look at this bigger picture that we forget to ask our neighbor how they're doing. We forget to ask our friends. We're so busy fighting this huge fight that we forget that issue sometimes, even in our own homes. And it's something that it's caused me to reflect.

I personally will be trying to push forward, whether or not Black Lives Matter is trending on Twitter. We need to remember what we're fighting for, whether or not it's getting news coverage, whether or not it's a popular movement, whether or not the news is deciding to broadcast it.

These fights don't go away.


This story was produced with additional reporting by Josie Huang.

We want to listen to more young people. You can get in touch with us by emailing reporter Carla Javier, or filling out the form below.