Voices in Action 2011: A “Summit Sampler”

Alison Beth Waldman
March 2, 2011

Saturday, 7:30 AM: I’m standing, bleary-eyed, in Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium watching what seems an unlikely group at work: rappers warm up on stage, graffiti artists set up their work, slam poets pace and practice—while White House representatives and the man in charge of U.S. public education take one last run through their event checklists.

Outside, I can hear festive chanting from the anxious teenagers waiting for the doors to open. Actor and White House staffer Kalpen Modi makes an entrance.

I’m here as a volunteer for the Voices in Action National Youth Summit, hosted by the U.S. Department of Education.

I forget all about the early morning as soon as the doors open and hundreds of bright-eyed teenagers—middle and high school students from across the country—fill the auditorium seats, folders and voting keypads (more on these below) in hand.

What do you think?

Whether you were there or just care about our schools, your voice counts, so let us hear it!

Post a comment below or on our Facebook page, or email me at alison@sparkaction.org.

It’s immediately clear to me that this Summit is an unusual, even revolutionary—and I use that word intentionally amid current events in Egypt and Tunisia—event that has a little bit of everything. A genuinely grassroots event hosted by the U.S. Department of Education (that's not a contradiction!). A diverse group of 300 students and more than 50 adults talk about education: what’s working, what’s missing and how to fix it. Hip hop. Performance art. Clear policy talk. Student voices.

I could go on but a novel-length entry will not suffice, so I present to you your very own Summit Sampler: highlights from the event that are too good to ignore.  I’m optimistic that the observations, discussions and information-sharing were powerful enough to make this more than just a one-time event summit; let’s hope it’s the start of a different way of doing business in education reform.

Throughout the event, students shared real-world perspectives on issues ranging from funding and security to school lunches, art classes, and language curriculum; they shared these with influential administration leaders who actually listened.

Here are some of the moments that stood out:

  • The kick-off: take President Obama's 2020 goal of leading the world in college completion, mix it with popular music and performance, turn it into a music video worthy of the finer days of MTV and you've got 2020 Vision, the very cool music video by Adobe Youth Voices that kicked off the event.  Not only did I love the play on words, but the video also brought a fresh face and modern approach to the message of staying in school. (Check out the 2020 Vision Behind the Scenes video, too.)
  • U.S.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Associate Director of the Office of Engagement Kalpen Modi (also a popular TV and movie star) spoke to the students, and took questions.  A nice surprise—and new opportunity—for many students.
  • Federal representatives assured us over and over throughout the day that the youth voice does matter. Interim Chancellor of Washington, DC, Public Schools Kaya Henderson pointed out that adults are making decisions all the time about children’s issues without having a face or stories of experience to connect to these decisions. 
  • Throughout the day, the issue of college tuition came up repeatedly. Many students asked for explanations and a re-examination of the rising price of a postsecondary education.
  • Loud and clear, students voiced their desire for counselors and teachers who are engaged in the education and safety of students, both in and out of school.  Not only did students say that this emotional support is essential to academic success, but they pushed for the incorporation of that support within the school environment.
  • Through short on-camera interviews I did with participants, I learned (and was amazed by) the selflessness and dedicated activism of those involved in the summit. Many of the older students with whom I spoke were already out of high school and some had given up hopes of being able to access and afford a healthy, continuing education, but they were involved in the summit because they want to see what can be done to help their younger siblings to succeed in their education. I’ll post my video interviews on SparkAction in the coming days, so you can hear their voices first hand.
  • All youth participants got keypads to vote on polling questions such as age, issue of highest concern and even favorite kind of music.  The results were displayed real-time on a central screen, which let us all see the diversity of opinions and the areas of alignment.
  • The participants were an extremely diverse group. Looking across the crowded auditorium, it was like somebody took a big ladle-full of the American melting pot and poured it into the Cramton Auditorium.  Having a range of economic status, race, and geographic location, kids were able to see where and how their own issues fit into the bigger picture, as well as to unite over shared issues.
  • A factoid I heard: 9 percent of youth in inner-city DC schools graduate from college.  9 percent.
  • There were youth-led breakout sessions in the middle of the day. I sat in on one session called “Picture Equality: Documentary Youth Photography to Create Change,” led by the nonprofit organization, Critical Exposure. The session shared ways that students are using images to document their experiences, showing that art can fuel advocacy and give voice to the often-voiceless.

Overheard at the Summit:  

  • "I want to see a youth summit in every state!” – Summit participant at the education panel.
  • Twitter exploded when Secretary Duncan uttered these words: “Education is not an expense, it’s an investment.”

Up Next: I'll do a second dispatch in the coming days. Here's a teaser: edutainment, “streets instead of schools,” and what happens when we’ve already talked to our Senators?

Alison Beth Waldman, a recent graduate of Denison University, is an editorial & policy intern with SparkAction.