“Ultimately, you are the protagonist of your own life. You are the author of your own narrative. You as young people, even though you are told, ‘You’re young, what can you do?’, every movement in the last century has been led by young people,” said Hector Calderon, founding principal of El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, “Do you know why it’s been like that? Because young people don’t see the world as it is, but they see it as it could be.” A room full of school leaders, educators, students and community members applauded.

Calderon was a part of a panel discussion discussing student activism and civic engagement on Wednesday, March 23rd, during ESI’s “Why We Can’t Wait: Empowering Students Through Civic Engagement” at the New School. The event, co-sponsored by the Center for NYC Affairs, began with an open discussion on the current election, remarks by Marcia Cantarella, education consultant and daughter of civil rights activist Whitney M. Young, a panel discussion on empowering student activism, and an interactive activity to help students’ brainstorm ways to bring meaningful change to their schools and communities.


  • When Cantarella stepped to the podium, she recounted her father’s legacy, the importance of education, and getting out to vote. “If we do nothing else this year, we must get out the vote,” she said, “No one should be allowed to sit this one out. The stakes are too high.” Cantarella spoke about people of color who were murdered for trying to vote during the civil rights movement. Not voting she said, “would betray the bloodshed 50 years ago. If there’s one form of activism that you should engage in, that’s it.”

  • Empowering students through civic engagement

Following Cantarella’s remarks, the panel discussion kicked off, moderated by Ayanna Heaven, Strategy consultant at the NYC Department of Education’s Division of Teaching and Learning. The panel also featured Arielle Newton,Black Lives Matter organizer and founder of blackmillenials.com, and David Puchefsky NY site director for Generation Citizen. Below are a couple memorable moments:

Voting to me is the very end of a tip,” said Calderon whose school was built on the foundation of human rights, “Certainly something we all should do and could do that can make a fundamental change but I think that, to go back to the idea of grassroots, when you talk about movements you have to educate people. Get them to become aware and become conscious.”

When Heaven asked “What advice would you give young folks here and also teachers or administrators on empowering students to be civically engaged?” Newton responded, “My advice to students would be this…Understand that voting is not the only form of civic engagement. Understand that petitioning, canvassing, door-knocking, community organizing, grassroots community organizing all of that counts for civic engagement as well…Don’t be afraid to hold your elected officials accountable. Ask yourself are they being receptive and responsive to your needs and demands, if not hold them accountable.”

She continued, “For the teachers and administrators in the room, I would just remind that you are not giving voice to your students. Your students already have a voice. Make sure you provide the platform and space to listen to them.”

CeSGW9LWQAA5rzeOnce the panel concluded, students were separated into groups for an activity identifying issues in their communities and discussing ways to affect change through civic engagement. The young men and women reflected on forms of civic engagement they have participated in. Students then identified issues in their schools and communities such as gang violence, low academic rigor, teacher bias, economic barriers, and lack of adequate test preparation.

After identifying issues, the young participants brainstormed and presented ways to engage the community to affect change. One student suggested connecting with schools in the neighborhood facing similar struggles. Another suggested gathering proof and speaking with school leadership for guidance on next steps.

The student activity proved what we at ESI already know: Our students are powerful beyond measure and, with a little guidance, have the power to impact change in their community and further, in the global world.

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