Creating an Educational System that Supports Democracy Through Student Activism

Education is the great engine of our democracy, and the fuel for that engine is the opportunities students have to engage in activism on issues that are important to them. It is the job of adult allies to nurture and support students in this endeavor.  Seven student leaders from across the country came to ED to share  how they successfully accomplished advocacy efforts at their respective high schools and college campuses, specifically identifying the supports they received, and how government–teachers, principals, school board members, public college/university administrators, state legislatures, and yes, federal officials–can best support them in their advocacy efforts.


Taylor and Mecca, both members of the Baltimore Intersection, are high school students who have successfully advocated to the people of Baltimore and the Baltimore City Council to pass the Children and Youth Investment Act. This Baltimore City Council Act is a first-of-its-kind fund to pump $31 million in new funding into programs geared toward children and youth. Taylor shared that without the Intersection she would not be the advocate she is today: “In my house we don’t talk about politics, sports or religion. The Intersection gave me this opportunity to find my voice.”

Sol Ortega, a first-generation college student, was not an activist in high school, but developed her passion through learning about DACA at Valencia Community College. After transferring to University of Florida she became involved in the Gators for Tuition Equity her freshmen year of college sparking her passion for Hispanic/Latino issues and for advocating for equitable tuition rates. Sol works with the University of Florida’s CHISPAS program and Hispanic Latino Affairs to continue these efforts and fight for proper resources for DACA youth within the university and the state.

Payton Head, former Student Government President of University of Missouri, shared about barriers he faced when the “Missouri state legislature pursued placing sanctions (eliminating funding) for activism on campuses, and the DOJ stepped in to help secure the campus when state leadership would not intervene during threats.” He did not overcome these barriers alone, but found a community of student government leaders through the National Campus Leadership Council to share best practices for activism and advocacy and learn about the success stories of student organizations doing work to address a myriad of issues on college campuses. This community provided him support, tactics, and helped him address some of the issues during his tenure representing around 28,000 students at Mizzou.

As the session came to a close, a student leader asked Secretary King about holding future education leaders accountable and he responded with four ideas:

  1. Political activism and organizing needs to happen all the time, not just during election season.
  2. Coalition building needs to be broader, bringing together high school students, college students, and adult advocates.
  3. Don’t only be D.C. focused. Work on the state, local and institutional levels.
  4. Collect data, information and stories to advocate for your respective issues.

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department through which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Sam Ryan, Youth Liaison, Office of Communication and Outreach.