- Social Innovation Fellowship
Providence is my favorite place in the world. I’ve found a sense of community and a feeling of belonging in this diverse, crazy, colorful, manageable, messed-up, beautiful city, and it means the world to me. I say this often, and I repeat it here because I don’t think it is possible to explain my interest in creating a new student organizing program in Providence without this context. I love this city, I’m here to stay, and if this is going to be my home then I want it to be the best home it can be.
Zack and I want to use the Starr Fellowship to do our part in this struggle. It is our opinion that few kinds of programs could have a greater transformative impact on Providence’s high schools than those that are able to effectively facilitate and empower students to express their voice in a meaningful way. And nothing can accomplish those goals better than student organizing. Bringing students together, giving them a space to analyze the power structures that shape their life choices, sharing with them the skills and tools of direct action organizing, and then aiding them as they work to have a say in shaping the issues that truly matter to them—that can create some really powerful changes in two important ways.
First, being a part of a direct action organizing campaign, learning from experience the ways that different systems work and how a group can—if it is organized and strong enough—actually affect a policy, is nearly always a seriously empowering experience. Our work at Hope showed us that students come out the other end of such a campaign cognizant of the fact that they are able to have a real effect on the world around them, that they can speak in front of the School Board and have their words quoted in the newspaper and see how their efforts are able to change the course of the public discourse. So on a personal level, an effective student organizing program has the potential to build students’ confidence, both in themselves and in the value of civic engagement in general.
Second, the creation of an effective student organizing program can have the result of changing the way in which the educational decisions affecting Providence’s students are made, whether they be at the school-, district-, or state-level. We live in a system that is, at its core, pluralist; different groups represent different interests, and their power and influence tend to determine which issues our government tackles and how it tackles them. There are a lot of different groups, representing a lot of different interests, currently influencing the decisions affecting Providence’s public school students— teachers unions, taxpayer groups, administrators, bureaucrats, outside agencies (such as the Broad Foundation), etc. Some of these groups probably have students’ best interests at heart, some probably do not, most are likely to be somewhere in between. But until there is a full-time, active organization representing all the diverse yet shared interests of Providence’s students, it is foolish to expect that those with decision-making power will consistently make choices that are legitimately student-centered. The existence of a Providence Student Union can change that by forcing self-interested decision-makers to consider students’ opinions and reactions when crafting new policies—a revolutionary and, we believe, critical step in changing our city’s public schools.