Alexis Morin spoke with The 74 Million about the lack of student voice and power in schools, and why students must demand it.
Four years ago, a group of college students from across Los Angeles gathered in a coffee shop to share stories. Some of them were difficult to hear: what it felt like to take remedial classes, to be talked down to by a professor, to be the first person in their neighborhood or family to attend college.
But something else was happening in that room: The students were realizing they weren’t alone. The education system they’d spent the past two decades in wasn’t working for them, or for their peers who shared their socioeconomic background. Still, they had hope in it. And they had hope that they could change it.
These students all belonged to Students for Education Reform, or SFER, a nonprofit network of 2,000 students on 93 college campuses that trains young education activists. Alexis Morin, executive director and co-founder of SFER, listened to these conversations that day, and even though she created SFER in 2011, she credits that moment in the coffee shop as a turning point in her understanding of the importance of student voice in education.
“I was beyond energized by what a group of people who are realizing what they deserved from this system — and didn’t get — could do to shape the system,” she said.
Now 27, Morin has grown her SFER staff team to 23, which oversees student organizing in six cities: Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Charlotte, and Richmond, California. The 4,000 students who have been a part of SFER over the years — over 60 percent identify as low-income, first generation, and/or students of color — have influenced school board races, fought stringent school policing practices, decried raids on immigrant families, and advocated for high-quality teacher hiring.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you decide to start SFER? What inspired this?
I connected with Catharine (Bellinger), my co-founder, at the end of our freshman year and both of us were hungry to spend some of our time at (Princeton) doing something we considered meaningful. My co-founder had done an intensive teaching internship at KIPP in Washington D.C. I had served on my school board in my hometown in Massachusetts (during high school). That was a great experience. I learned the Education Reform Act of 1993 in Massachusetts outlines that every district in Massachusetts is supposed to have a student representative on the school board. But that often falls by the wayside. My district was generally delivering high-quality academics. There were tons of phenomenal courses and teachers, and still there were students not being well served and there was huge disparity in the quality of teachers across the school. I thought all of that was really interesting.
Did you pick up on that from the school board meetings?
I picked up on that from being a really engaged student and also being the editor-in-chief of my school newspaper. My goal on the school board was to raise some of these questions and to talk about what it would look like to have teachers who are at the level of our all-star rock star teachers in every classroom.
There was another thing that I couldn’t name at the time, but I think it was missing in my hometown — a deep commitment to developing students’ sense of purpose and character and a sense of your role as a citizen. The school as a whole didn’t have a mission around students locating themselves in the country, in the world, and thinking about how to combine their gifts with pursuit of justice.
I started to understand the difference between student voice and student power. I think both are important, but the student school board member, for example, is a non-voting position. That’s one of the ideas that have come to life in our student organizing work: We absolutely believe we need to build a platform for much of our student voice. People and decision makers need to understand what students’ dreams are and whether or not their experience is propelling them towards those dreams. Students need power. Power is the ability to compel someone to make a decision that will benefit you in pursuit of your dreams. Students through us are building power through collective action, community organizing, issue campaigns, and these electoral campaigns. When we can combine those two things, we’re going to see districts be much more responsive to student and community needs.
How do you think schools or districts are doing when it comes to giving students power versus students voice?
There’s very little student voice and there’s very little student power. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” — the Frederick Douglass quote. These institutions and the leaders who run them — particularly when they’re underperforming and they’re not supportive environments for students — are never going to give students power or, I believe, even be particularly interested in hearing students’ voices. But student can organize together and demand power and demand recognition.
We have incredible inspiring examples of this in our nation’s history. Probably the example that has been most inspiring to us at SFER has been the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement and the work those undergraduates and young people did to register voters, challenge racist policies, agitate people to get in touch with their dignity...the sacrifices and risks that those young people were willing to take changed our nation forever.
Much more recently, we’ve seen a wave of Black Lives Matter protests often led by young people and the campus expression of that, where black students organizing together, demanding to have their needs and their experiences recognized on campus, doing things like sits-ins and threatening to have a football team strike. I think the DREAMer movement is another movement that has inspired the nation and completely changed the empathy with which Americans understand the experiences of immigrants and immigrant children and undocumented children.
This question of, “How are our schools doing at giving students voice and power?” is pretty much always going to be that they’re not. That’s not their function. But how well are students doing in getting together, creating their own agenda, and building the power to demand that? I think we’ve seen examples of that historically, and now we see examples of students doing that when it comes to this question of a quality education.
What are some of SFER’s biggest accomplishments?
Building this movement of students. There's now been over 4,000 members of SFER cumulatively that is diverse and representative of the students going through our school system. That means there’s first-generation college students, there’s immigrant students, there’s undocumented students, there’s students of color, and all these students have been trained in advocacy and organizing. Those who are undergrads are taking actions, and those who are alumni, 60 percent are working in education or advocacy.
The next accomplishment that we’re so proud of is the work that SFER Action Networkmembers have done to reshape their city school boards. Since 2013, across five different city school districts, young alumni of those districts have been actively engaged in evaluating candidates for school board, endorsing the people they believe are going to fight for the education of low-income students, and then communicating with voters about the power of a vote for school board. Those campaigns have led to anywhere from an 8 percent increase in voter turnout when our members are communicating at the door. The folks turning out are families who are being underserved by the district and don’t usually vote in school board elections. Now these neighborhoods and voters are saying, “Wow, I do have power to push the district to make the meaningful changes that my family needs.”
When students have played a role in helping shape that (school board), those board members know there are young alumni of their district watching them. They care about what this group thinks of them, and they often want to learn from students.
As an example, one of our members, Brenda Contreras, who is a first-generation college student at Sacramento State, navigated her way to college by utilizing an afterschool program and getting advice from her friends. While she had some teachers in her journey through the Richmond public schools who supported her, she did not have a teacher who helped her think about applying to college. A really powerful call to action that Brenda has for the district is to build college support into the academic program.
What are some of the issues you advocate for?
Our members have taken on issues that represent their experiences in the school system: the struggle for dignity, safety, respect, and civil rights. Other issues represent their demand to be educated. I know that sounds so simple, but it’s not happening in way too many places. I’ll give you some examples of different types of campaigns.
Last year, in North Carolina, ICE, the immigration agency, was doing raids with the intention of detaining and deporting students, including young refugees from Central America. ICE was doing these raids at bus stops to pick up students and parents that they knew would be there. These raids were terrifying to the immigrant community in North Carolina and in Charlotte and led to depressed attendance as families didn’t want to jeopardize being separated and were forced to choose between their child attending school and getting educated or risking their safety and their ability to live in the country. SFER members in Charlotte went to school board meetings and said, “This district needs to stand up for every student regardless of their immigration or documentation status,” and asked the school board members to go on record in support of all students, including undocumented students, and to call ICE off of this tactic. This activism and ICE’s actions and the community reaction was even picked up by the New York Times editorial board. There was one student who our members were in particular organizing around, and he was given a stay of deportation in large part because the community said, “Absolutely not. He’s a student and he should be in school and he should be learning.”
A similar, related issue that our members have taken up in Minnesota has been a campaign to define and limit the role of school resource officers. Our members in Minnesota, many of whom have known Philando Castile and have seen their own city rocked by racist policing practices, said, “What is the role of police in our schools?” There is no legislative guidance around this and there’s not a thoughtful approach. But what we see is heavier policing in schools that serve black students, in schools that serve students of color, and schools that serve low-income students. Our members have been conducting a campaign asking for the governor and the legislature to create a task force and evaluate what is the role police should play in schools and how should those police be trained and how can we make sure as a community that we’re not exposing students to trauma over policing, criminalization, or danger.
When it comes to students pursuing college prep academics, we’ve had students in Richmond, California, ask their superintendent and their district and their school board to fill all the teacher vacancies. High schoolers in the city of Richmond turned out to a board meeting and said, “We need instructors so that we can learn this content and apply to college.” Students have been testifying at school board meetings, meeting with the HR leadership in the district, and talking to policy experts who understand the challenges of long-term vacancies, the teacher shortage, and the problem of emergency credentials that allow teachers who aren’t experts in a subject to be teaching.
How do you decide which cities you work in?
When we were growing campus to campus, we were tracking down other students who were really radically optimistic about the idea that our public schools could be much better. We ended up choosing a lot of cities that had elected school boards, and the reason for that was our sister nonprofit, SFER Action Network, enables our members to vet candidates running for school board members in their cities and decide who they believe will best represent their interests and best advance education reform. When our students make endorsements, which has now happened every years since 2013, the way that they show up for those candidates they believe in is through voter contact, door knocking, and phone calls. It’s overwhelmingly students doing it in their own cities, sometimes even down to their own neighborhood where they’re talking to voters. And the impact they’ve been able to make in increasing voter turnout and playing a critical role in these candidates getting elected has been a really empowering way to support better leaders in our cities. That’s possible in cities that have an elected school board.
How do you decide which road to take if group members disagree on what side of an issue they should be advocating for?
Students research what’s going on in their district...How does power work in this district? Who is in charge? Who sits on the school board and what are their goals? What responsibility does the superintendent have? What is changeable and what is not? Our members and staff are learning the answers to those things by setting up meetings with elected officials, attending and studying what goes on at every school board meeting, and meeting with groups that are policy experts.
Students often in a leadership role in each city will bring forward to their peers a recommendation for a campaign based on what issues students are raising. Students will ratify that campaign and start to execute on it. At the end, reflect: What did we learn? Did we achieve our goal? What reactions did we provoke? Did we build our membership base? The process requires strong relationships between our members and among our staff, and it requires research and deliberation where students discuss which of these issues will have a more profound impact on students in schools right now. That process is where a lot of the soul of organizing work lives. It requires grit and real relationships built on a foundation of trust and shared values.
Why are the voices of college students so important when it comes to advocating for education?
College students know how they were prepared to succeed in college and how they weren’t. So their reflections on their district are crucial information for all the educators who are trying to increase access to college.
Is it often hard to get them to care about education?
The students that we connect with, we find that spark of connection because we both care deeply about their city and their experience about going through the K-12 public school system. I think there’s an abundance of students who care about this issue and it doesn’t feel like there’s a limited supply of student activists, especially in 2017, especially after this last presidential election. The work is getting out there to connect with these students. Every day we want to be inviting more students in to understand that they have agency and can reshape these systems that have failed their families and communities.
Do you think adults take student voice seriously, or do students have to prove themselves at a level that’s higher than an adult would in these conversations?
Of course students’ contributions are discounted. And the way that students will assert their power is to work together to demand changes to the direction of the district and to work with the community and voters to hold leaders accountable. As students do these things and show up regularly at every board meeting and show up at every election, it won’t really matter what the leaders of the district think students should say or shouldn’t say. Students will be powerful in the district. For students who feel like they’ve been marginalized or that their voices don’t count, don’t request to be respected; do the work of organizing with a group of people who share the same goal and values, and then decision makers will have no choice except to consult you and care what you think.
For educators or advocates or even decision makers who want to pursue the bold and radical change that kids need, understanding and seeking out the experience students had in your schools and understanding what their dreams are and whether or not your schools supported that, that is critical information.