Running together toward justice: A collaborative vision for school reform
Written by: Maru Gonzalez
Student advocacy and youth empowerment have always been central to my role as an educator. In fact, my motivation to engage and lift youth voices was born out of my own experiences as a middle and high school student who felt silenced by a status quo that seemed to discourage critical inquiry. I can remember one particular instance when I mustered up enough courage to meet with my principal in order to address a discrepancy that was impacting the entire student body. Rather than work with me on a viable solution, the principal simply dismissed my grievances as nothing more than a “bump on the road life” and added, “Sometimes you just have to learn to go around those bumps and keep moving forward.”
While anecdotal, my experience speaks to a broader narrative in which educational institutions reinforce an educator/student binary that views learning as unilateral. And with so much emphasis on standardized tests and teacher-centered learning, the role of student is being further relegated to that of an empty vessel meant to consume—rather than contribute—information and ideas.
Granted, there have been measures within education to motivate student leadership and integrate diverse perspectives into the curriculum. But what if we proposed a more bold initiative? What if we presumed that students can also be teachers, that their opinions and perspectives enrich curriculum and classroom discussion? What if teachers encouraged students to be more than just empty vessels and actively contribute to school reform? What if educators and students worked together to smooth out—rather than go around—those proverbial “bumps”? Would not everyone have an easier road to travel?
Throughout my experience as an educator and youth advocate, I have been afforded the opportunity to work alongside youth whose voices have shifted the way in which I view the world; students who have led movements to change hearts and open minds; and who have made the impossible seem possible. Austin Laufersweiler is one such youth. I first met Austin while I was working as a high school counselor in Georgia. As a not-yet-out gay student, he was the frequent target of schoolyard taunts aimed at his perceived sexual orientation. Motivated to inspire systemic change, Austin sought my support and that of another school counselor. Together, we helped cultivate a more respectful school climate by establishing a Gay-Straight Alliance, creating awareness about bullying and harassment among the student body, and coordinating an educational workshop for school personnel.
We soon joined forces with a team of activists, educators and community members to establish the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition, an organization which creates safer, more affirming schools for all students throughout the state. Since then, Austin and I have taken our message from Georgia school houses to the U.S. Capitol, lobbying for anti-bullying measures such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act. Two years ago, we successfully helped secure enumerated protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students and other marginalized populations in our local school district’s anti-bullying and harassment policy. In recognition for our advocacy efforts, we were invited to the 2010 LGBT White House Pride Reception and subsequently honored with Georgia Equality’s “Champions for Equality” award. We also marched as Grand Marshals in the 2010 Atlanta Pride Parade and have embarked on a number of individual anti-bullying and harassment initiatives.
For our next adventure, Austin and I will be participating in the Atlanta marathon and half marathon on March 18, 2012 to raise money for the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition and create awareness about bullying and harassment in schools. I will be running the full marathon while Austin will run the half. As with our advocacy work, we will begin the races together: running side by side and supporting each other every step of the way. True to life, there will come a time (around mile 7) when our paths will diverge and we will run our own race- separate but still connected, running toward the same goal but taking different routes. Along the way—whether we’re solo or side by side—we will rely on the support of the other to cross the finish line.
On a personal level, the marathon and half marathon reflect our extraordinary collaborative achievements and individual endeavors. More broadly, the races are meant to underscore the importance of educators and students working together toward justice so that no student is ever made to feel invisible.
For Austin and I, this race is not about competition or achieving a personal best; it’s about creating awareness about bullying and harassment in schools and supporting one another throughout the process. It’s about running the race step by step, mile by mile, changed heart by changed heart and leaving behind a smoother road for those who follow.