Save Our Schools: Philly Students Host Youth Power Summit To Campaign for Non-Violence
The banquet hall is a-rockin’. A young man stands at the front of the expansive room with a mic, chanting, “When I say youth, you say power!” He’s got the ear of over 200 middle and high school students, scattered at tables around the hall.
“Youth!” the young man exhorts.
“Power!” the room shouts back.
The rally came at the end of a long day at Community College, where about 230 students from Philadelphia public schools gathered yesterday for a Youth Power Summit to discuss their ideas for improving the education system. Students attended a series of workshops on themes such as “Restorative Justice: Tools for Peace” and “Bias Violence: Overcoming Divisions in Our Schools.” The summit is part of the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools started by ten student and community groups last year in response to the dual challenges of omnipresent school violence and the accompanying negative portrayal of Philly’s youth in the media. The goal: To give air to the voices of youth themselves, the ones with the biggest stake in maintaining safe, effective city schools.
“I feel there should be more youth voices making change,” says Bach Tong, a junior at Science Leadership Academy. Tong, 17, transferred from South Philly High last year after the highly publicized attacks on Asian students there. “So much violence was going on,” Tong says. “We are here to make petitions against the injustice.”
“I came here today because I actually care about the voice a young person can have,” says Roger Churchville, a senior at West Philly High. Churchville, 17, was a facilitator for a workshop called “Know Your Rights.” “It’s about how young people feel oppression when they don’t feel their rights have been obeyed,” he says. In the session, the kids played a game called “Stand Up if You Hear Me,” in which Churchville called out statements like, “Stand up if a teacher ever called you stupid.”
“Most kids feel like they’ve been treated wrongly,” Churchville says. “Right now we’re standing together to face stereotypes that we fight in everyday life, so people can know there’s at least some good young people out there.”
“Okay, fights happen,” says Churchville’s co-facilitator Lawrence Mahoney, 20, a Drexel student who graduated from West Philly in 2008. “But what the media doesn’t bring out is that youth are doing good things.”
Churchville and Mahoney speak about another kind of violence, systemic violence that they say includes lack of resources and unqualified teachers that keep kids in a position to fail. “It’s not right and it’s not fair,” Mahoney says. “But we’re working to stop that.”
“We want to tell young people that they really do have a voice,” says Jamira Burley, president of the Philadelphia Youth Commission, one of the groups supporting the non-violence campaign. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to talk in a safe environment without adults.”
After the summit, campaign members plan to make recommendations to provide to the school district as well as City Hall. “We’re looking for dialogue,” Burley says. “This isn’t just to have a day with no follow-up.”
Member groups of the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools:
Citywide Student Government
Asian Student Assocation of Philadelphia
Save Our Schools is an occasional series on efforts large and small to fight violence and improve learning environments in Philly’s public school system.