This piece first appeared in The Progressive. (Subscribe here to read the full issue.)
Since her horrific shooting at the hands of the Taliban in October of 2012 simply for attending school, Malala Yousafzai has become an international symbol of student activism and the power of education. Even before becoming the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, her story was shared widely. She continues to be held up as a symbol of the power of youth to challenge oppression and injustice.
Yousafzai even had a private audience at the White House when she visited Washington, in October of 2013. She sat with president Obama, firmly advising him that the use of drones fueled terrorism. In a subsequent interview, she revealed how she “thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees.” Her expression of gratitude confirmed what many persist in celebrating as America’s deep commitment to education and democracy abroad. Government officials have spoken powerfully in support of pro-democracy rallies across the globe and consistently affirmed the right of youth to have access to a quality education.
When Yousafzai left the White House, however, she was whisked away to speak at the exclusive private school that the President’s daughters and other children of privilege attend. That she was not scheduled to speak or at least tour one of the District’s public schools illustrates a much larger problem. Despite our insistence on democracy and justice abroad, both are failing here in the United States in the one place we need them desperately, our public schools.
In reality, Yousafzai has much in common with many American students who are speaking out powerfully and passionately in defense of public education in the United States. While they may not be facing down guns, they are endangered by policies and practices ushered in by corporate education reformers like former DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee that not only deny their access to education but also their human dignity and worth.
Students across the nation have borne the brunt of top down policies that reinforce economic inequality, label them, their teachers, and their schools as failures, force school closures, and encourage outright segregation while limiting curriculum choices and subjecting them to high stakes testing.
Students have been speaking out about these polices from Providence, Rhode Island and Denver, Colorado to Newark, New Jersey and Chicago, Illinois. They were not rewarded with visits to the White House but rather face hostility, indifference, and in some cases, even violence.
When they acted within the system, respecting the rules of democratic practice by petitioning officials for redress and requesting the opportunity to be heard, they met with mockery. When they took to the streets or engaged in acts of civil disobedience, like the Philadelphia students who staged a sit-in at a School Reform Commission session, they were treated with ridicule and disrespect, in many cases by the same people and officials who celebrated Yousafzai.
The sad fact is that we are rearing a generation of young people whose formative experiences with American democracy will be tainted by these exchanges and who know they are being shortchanged at school. During the waves of unrest over the killing of black teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, pundits decried the low voter turnout and participation in communities like Ferguson. What exactly would the people be voting for? Too often their experience is that those entrusted with the reins of government are been unresponsive—even dismissive of parents, teachers, and students alike.
Corporate education reformers and their wealthy and powerful allies have trampled on democracy and democratic practice. In the process, they have sent a damaging message to students: Democracy is for the rich and powerful. A “good education” is reserved for the children of privilege who can afford to attend private school. And most damaging of all, democracy does not work––their voices do not matter.
While denying U.S. students the right to protest their conditions, Corporate Education Reformer in Chief U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took to Twitter to congratulate Yousafzai on winning the Nobel Prize. “Proof,” he proclaimed, “that one #studentvoice can change the world.” After Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations in August, Secretary Duncan also drew upon her example. “If we want both justice and peace, he advised those in attendance at the USAID Education Summit, “then we must work for education.” Yet the Secretary has been virtually silent on the demonstrations by American students demanding the same right to be heard.
The truth is, when it comes to American students, Yousafzai’s story is treated not as an invitation to find their own voice to fight for education and justice. Instead, it is used as a mirror to remind them just how good they have it in relation to other students across the globe that lack the blessings of freedom and democracy––students like those in Greece and Chile, who are also battling against corporate education reform policies, not to mention students in Myanmar who are fighting recent government edicts to limit academic freedom and strictly forbid student involvement in political activities.
As young people in student unions across the United States know well, there are similar pro-democracy actions and protests taking place right here against policies and actions by state, local, and federal officials that have the same chilling effect. One need not go as far as Ferguson on a nightly basis to see and understand the resolve of some to make democracy work, in spite of the fact that it is in critical condition.
The proof is evident in the growing number of student led protests and the hostility they have encountered. After Camden, New Jersey students walked out of class in May to protest the mass dismissal of teachers, Senior Samir Nichols summed up their purpose: “We’re actually in the streets and we’re being somewhat disobedient, but it’s for a civil cause.” Nevertheless they were derided by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who complained that they had “no basis for their actions” and were being manipulated by “selfish adults.”
This past October in Philadelphia, Sylvia Simms, a member of the School Reform Commission, an appointed state oversight body that has replaced the democratically elected school board in that city since 2001, was a caught berating students who staged a protest during a commission sponsored screening of an anti-union film. In video footage from the incident, an unidentified adult can be heard yelling, “Lock them up!” as the students clap and declare, “Philly is a Union Town,” “Save our schools!” Reportedly Simms told the students, “You belong in jail,” and “You must go to failing schools.”
Although the video and reports from Philadelphia were shocking, they pale in comparison to the case of a New Jersey student who had her wrist broken while engaged in a peaceful protest against Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson. Kristin Towkaniuk, one of the leaders of the Newark Student Union, was purportedly injured after she was manhandled by a plainclothes police officer. “I kept yelling, ‘You do not have consent to touch me,’” Towkaniuk recalled. Despite video of the incident and calls by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka for an investigation, Towkaniuk’s story barely made the national news. No invitations to the White House or even the New Jersey Governor’s Mansion were forthcoming.
Of course, Towkaniuk would have been no stranger to Governor Christie. He yelled at her in July after she asked him why he refused to visit Newark during a political rally. Such contempt and disrespect is part of the reason why Newark students felt the need to resort to acts of civil disobedience in the first place in the hopes of finally being heard.
It is not only politicians who are indifferent to the voices of our young people. In the comments section of a local newspaper story on the Newark protest, a commenter, only identified as Sally, posted, “Shoot this girl. Put society out of it’s misery.” [sic]
Thus, students are learning a frustrating lesson about democracy. It is a lesson at odds with the praise that accompanied Yousafzai’s speech. To the politicians, pundits, and corporate education reformers who persist in celebrating Yousafzai while ostensibly struggling to understand American student to protests, I counsel a close read Yousafzai’s words:
“Dear brothers and sisters, we want schools and education for every child’s bright future. We will continue our journey to our destination of peace and education for everyone. No one can stop us. We will speak for our rights and we will bring change through our voice. We must believe in the power and the strength of our words. Our words can change the world.”
This is the mantra and rallying cry of students everywhere who believe in the power of education and their right to fight for a system that respects and values their voices and their lives. “It is not possible,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King once observed, “to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.” We have a duty and responsibility to support our young people and to listen and act on their concerns. Both our democracy and sense of justice demand it.
Yohuru Williams is an education activist and professor of history at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of several books, including Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven (Blackwell, 2006), Teaching Beyond the Textbook: Six Investigative Strategies (Corwin Press, 2008), and Liberated Territory: Toward a Local History of the Black Panther Party (Duke, 2008). He also served as general editor for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s 2002 and 2003 Black History Month publications, The Color Line Revisited (Tapestry Press, 2002) and The Souls of Black Folks: Centennial Reflections (Africa World Press, 2003).