The Kids Are All Right: Meet the Next Generation of Social Justice Activists

From gun safety to immigration reform, turning our collective attention to social justice means making sure every student can lead a fulfilling life. But it’s not easy work, is it?

Since the 2012 shooting of 20 children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., at least 194 children have been shot to death. More then 3,000 would-be students are serving life-without-parole sentences in U.S. adult prisons. And as we mark this year’s 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty,” our children are hungrier then ever. For people who care about economic equality, social rights, and opportunities, these are dark days. But the path forward is brightly lit by the next generation of inspiring social-justice activists.

Ashton Lee

Last year, the transgender teen from Manteca, Calif., was forced to face a fool’s choice: Deny the truth of his identity and take the girls-only dance class required of him by his high school administrators, or skip P.E. and say goodbye to a high school diploma.

Fortunately, Lee found a third way: He lobbied state legislators to pass a bill requiring that California students be permitted to participate fully in sex-segregated school activi- ties, programs, and sports that match their gender identity, regardless of what might be listed on a student’s records. In testimony to a California Senate committee, Lee said, “It feels devastating for my school to deny my identity and try so hard to make me live as somebody I’m not. And I don’t have any options. Gym class is required for graduation…if I don’t go, I can’t graduate. If I do go, I’m forced to lie about who I am.” Shortly after Lee personally delivered 5,700 petition signatures to Gov. Jerry Brown, the School Success and Opportunity Act was signed into law.

Daniel Rodriguez

“I learned English reading our Declaration of Independence, reading our Proclamation. ‘We the people’ were the first words I ever learned,” says Daniel Rodriguez, who read his aunt’s U.S. citizenship paperwork as a child. It’s clear to him that “we the people” includes the poor, people of color, and all those “yearning to breathe free.”

Rodriguez is co-founder of the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition (ADAC)—a youth-led organization working to create a nation of fully educated and integrated immigrant youth—and president of the Somos America/We Are America coalition. He is also one of the roughly 1.8 mil- lion children or young adults whose parents brought them into the U.S. without proper papers. For years, Rodriguez has fought against exorbitant tuition hikes for the state’s undocu- mented college students, against the governor’s attacks on ethnic studies programs, and for a DREAM Act that would benefit youth and their country. “The America I want, the America I’m fighting for, and the America that the youth and DREAMers are fighting for, is the America you taught us— the America that we still hope will come true, not just for the few, but for the many.”

Alexa Bailon

When kids are arrested for swiping gum out of a teacher’s desk or expelled for wearing too-big hair, “it is not okay,” says this 18-year-old organizer for Denver’s non-profit or- ganization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “A lot of people think they’re alone in these issues, but they’re actually systematic and a lot of people are affected,” says Bailon.

The “school-to- prison pipeline” is the name for the system of zero-tolerance practices that have sent Bailon’s friends from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse, often for misdemeanor offenses— and Bailon is working hard to put a major kink in that pipe. She speaks to student groups, meets regularly with Denver Public Schools leaders, and will serve as a youth delegate to the Alliance for Educational Justice later this year. Because of the work of Jóvenes Unidos youth organizers like Bailon, Colorado legislators passed a law in 2012 that forbids the misuse of zero tolerance policies, and requires
school districts to implement prevention and restorative justice programs, mediation, and counseling.

It seems to be working—in 2013, the state reported 80,318 suspensions, compared to 89,307 the year before, and referrals to law enforce- ment declined from 6,333 to 5,631. Their progress shows the power of youth voices, says Bailon, who also has testified at the state Capitol for in-state tuition for DREAMers. “When students say, ‘This needs to be fixed,’ it seems like we’re listened to.”

Kameisha Smith

Eleven years ago, she was a second grader gathering her peers to knock on doors and collect signatures for new playground equipment. When she made her case to the school board, they unanimously approved new slides, swings, and other equipment for all of the county’s elementary schools.

“She is quite an inspiring young lady,” says Ellen Reddy, the executive director of the Nollie Jenkins Family Center in Lexington, Miss., and also Smith’s godmother and mentor. Smith first came to the family center as a child, participating in a reading support group. But by the time she left for college last fall, she was a leader of the center’s Prevention of Schoolhouse 2 Jailhouse project and a strong voice against zero-tolerance and corporal punishment policies.

Today, Smith serves on the board of Southern Echo, a Mississippi non-profit. She has also been an organizer with the South by Southwest Experiment— an organization that helps Black, Latino, and Native American work for racial and social justice. We need to work inter-generationally and “value each other’s voices,” says Smith, who recently won a Sargent Shriver Youth Warrior Against Poverty Leadership Award.

Glori Dei Filippone

She has been concerned about the environment since she was 8 years old, and pollution shut down her local swimming hole in Des Moines, Iowa. In 2012, when she was 13, Dei Filippone filed suit against the state. Her goal? To force the adoption of rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions and hold Iowa lawmakers responsible for keeping the atmosphere safe. In 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against Dei Filippone, but the young activist isn’t discouraged. “When we look up into the sky, we all look at the same sky,” says Dei Filippone. “And if we hurt the environment, we hurt all of us. And we hurt no one more than the youngest generation.”

Alexis Ploss

By the time she graduates from college and realizes her dream job as a high school physics and astronomy teacher, Ploss will owe nearly $100,000. The low-income Manchester (N.H.) Community College student is the child of a single parent father who is permanently disabled, which means Ploss must rely on student loans to pay the skyrocketing tuition and fees associated with higher education. In a recent letter to Congress about this important social-justice issue, the NEA Student Advisory Committee member wrote, “This isn’t an issue that is just affecting future teachers. This is an issue facing a majority of college students, no matter what major. We want degrees, not debt.”