This post was written by 2020 Education Fellow Andrew Brennen.
One evening in early 2016, my classmates and I attended a school board meeting to lobby our elected representatives. Our presence in the room was unusual — typically students in Kentucky are invited to school board meetings to be seen, not heard. We planned to break that tradition, but by then, we were used to upending norms.
In just four short years, our group, the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team (SVT), had grown significantly. Once an informal gathering of four high school students meeting at a coffee shop, the SVT was now a team of 50-plus students, ranging from middle schoolers to undergraduates, working to achieve education justice in Kentucky. Our team had been responsible for dozens of op-eds, two policy reports, three state-wide press conferences at the Kentucky Capital, and a bill in the state legislature garnering attention from several national news media outlets.
On that night in 2016, we were working on something new. Our #PowerballPromise campaign was an attempt to close a budget loophole that allowed nearly $30 million in state lottery funds to be diverted from their intended purpose — college scholarships for low-income Kentucky students. We discovered this loophole in collaboration with a group of policy experts as we searched for solutions to Kentucky’s dismal college matriculation and graduation rates. Drawn to the issue by the obvious injustice, our team wondered if we could bring the energy needed to make traction on it.
As I reflect on the #PowerballPromise campaign, I think of the lessons my peers and I learned along the way that have helped to guide my work ever since. These three lessons helped us work as effective solution seekers capable of creating meaningful impact:
- Try New Approaches
- Stay Organized
Now, in my role as a 2020 Education Fellow—and first youth fellow—for National Geographic Education, I am working to ensure that young people around the world have the skills and resources they need to use these tactics in their own communities:
A core tenant of the SVT’s advocacy is sharing the stories and experiences of Kentucky students with the public. Here’s how we collect these stories through roundtable discussions with students from around the state:
- Armed with digital voice recorders, we usually start with the question, “What can you tell us about your school that the adults in your school building don’t know?” Students can be incredibly thoughtful when someone asks us to think critically about our schools and takes what we have to say seriously.
- Early on, we found that focusing our efforts on our peers most marginalized by the current education system and elevating their experiences to educators, school administrators, and legislators, could shift the perspectives of decision-makers and help them understand the urgency of our issues.
- As young people, storytelling is an especially powerful tool. While we may not be policy experts, we have spent hundreds of hours in a classroom since Kindergarten and are experts in our own experience.
As we listened to and elevated the stories of hundreds of students in 2015, we began to notice a theme: far too many Kentucky students with the ambition and ability to pursue higher education were falling through the cracks.
Try New Approaches
Our conversations with students, policymakers, educators, and school decision makers led us to explore why so many young people were failing to complete higher education. We wanted to use our research to inform the public about a problem that was not getting enough attention. Here’s how we persevered:
- In preparation for writing a policy report, we conducted a quantitative analysis on Kentucky’s postsecondary enrollment data to combine with the qualitative data we had already collected during our roundtable discussions. And we began to notice a theme: The data, and the policy reports in which the data lived, were dense, technical, and entirely inaccessible to the general public. We knew that making this data digestible for the average Kentuckian was key to building the broad public support we needed to make policy change.
- This realization led us to publish “Uncovering Tripwires to College,” a policy report which detailed three easy-to-understand barriers that often thwart students from making successful postsecondary education transitions. The tripwires were: “The Birthright Lottery,” “Veiled College Costs,” and “College and Career Unreadiness.”
- We learned from our previous legislative campaigns that while we could not afford full-time lobbyists, we could leverage our community connections to build support for our cause. So while the information contained in our report was not new, we combined the data with stories from real Kentucky students that brought the research to life and created an engaging narrative that strengthened public sentiment in our favor.
As young people advocating for education justice, we learned that accessing rooms where decision makers crafted education policy in Kentucky was essential if we planned to have a meaningful impact. The only problem is, the decision makers usually met while we were stuck in class! So we turned to a few strategies to help:
- We organized our supporters at the grassroots and grasstops levels simultaneously. This involved activities like skipping school to testify before a legislative committee or utilizing a snow day to write and publish op-eds in some of the largest newspapers in Kentucky. Suddenly, we and the thousands of students we strived to represent were part of the conversation.
- Perhaps the most impactful strategy we employed during the #PowerballPromise Campaign was mobilizing dozens of students to gather at the state capitol building to advocate on their own behalf within the halls of power. As I watched students who are routinely marginalized in Kentucky public schools proudly share their stories and hold their elected officials accountable, I realized the true impact of what we were doing. We were shifting power into the hands of our school’s most important stakeholder — students themselves.
- In the wake of our packed Rotunda rally, we filled social media with our research and stories. At several points, we were even texting with our allies in the state legislature to point out sections of the governor’s budget that did not meet the #PowerballPromise. Ultimately, Gov. Matt Bevin signed a budget that allocated $14 million to low-income students and paved the way for 8,000 more students to receive college scholarships.
While I believe our student-led coalition accomplished something significant with the #PowerballPromise, I also knew that we had only tackled a small piece of the problem. Five years later, Kentucky public schools continue to systematically perpetuate inequality by delivering a lower quality education for those who are low-income or Black. But if there is hope to be found, it is in the hundreds of students across the state who continue to mobilize for better public schools. I hope the lessons we learned and the impact we have had inspire you and your friends to take action and seek solutions as well.
Feature image courtesy of Andrew Brennen