Before the school board meeting started, over 30 community members, including 25 students, had signed their names on a list for public commentary. On the school board agenda this is called “Right to Be Heard”. These individuals were here to share their thoughts on the Providence Public School District enrollment problems. The district is looking for ways to address a “middle school bubble” of over 600 middle school students who will matriculate through the Providence Public School District (PPSD) over the next three years — a problem for which they do not yet have a chosen solution. The option suggested by the district is to repurpose Alvarez High School as a middle school, forcing current students to be reassigned to other high schools in Providence.
At the end of the fourth student testimony reiterating the importance of Alvarez to their future success, the president of the school board thanked them for their contribution and added this comment for the remaining 21 names on the Right to Be Heard list:
“If you have a testimony similar to the testimonies already given, please consider remaining seated.”
Not one student took his advice. Those 21 people had a Right to Be Heard. And they were heard.
The testimonies continued as student after student stood behind the small podium, dwarfed in the shadow of the stage filled with the Superintendent, legal counsel and the nine members of the school board, and shared their thoughts and questions regarding the repurposing of Alvarez High School.
Student testimonies ranged in length and subject—all were spoken with respect and a gratitude towards the board for hearing their suggestions. One student read the letters of her English Language Learning peers aloud to illustrate the importance of a high school community in building a sense of belonging in a confusing new country. Other students had full proposals for actions to be taken to resolve the issue of more-students-than-seats. These testimonies struck me for two reasons:
1) While the decision about the future of Alvarez High School was not made in that meeting and will likely be influenced heavily during closed-door conversations regarding financial futures of the district, these students demonstrated the two most crucial parts of civic engagement. They showed up. They asked questions. They contributed to and shaped the discussion on an issue affecting their community. The decision wasn’t made at this meeting and it likely won’t be made at the next few meetings. To keep shaping the discussion, students must keep showing up. Decisions are made and affected through continued involvement.
2) Testifying to a board of decision-makers as a high school student can be a daunting task, but for students who step up to that podium, it is an opportunity to shape a discussion they are otherwise powerless to influence. These podium moments matter beyond shaping the discussion on the table that day — they remind students that civic engagement is much more than voting for President.
There are more than 50 public meetings in the city of Providence and state of Rhode Island each month that effect students’ everyday lives in a variety of ways. It is rare that any community members, let alone youth, are in attendance at these meetings to contribute to the dialogue and decisions that shape our city. What can be done to make these conversations more compelling? How do we get people to keep showing up? When will public meetings be a fixture of civic life again? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
– Emily Flower, Rhode Island Program Associate
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.