May 2015 podcast: The history of successful high school activists



Historian Dawson Barrett discusses his new book Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists from the Little Rock 9 to the Class of Tomorrow.

Frank LoMonte: Hi everybody, and welcome to another edition of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast. I’m Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC is a nonprofit advocate for student voices. We provide free legal research, assistance and training for young people and the educators who work for them, doing anything journalistic, anywhere around the country.

You can find us online at www.splc.org, on Twitter @SPLC and you can connect with us most easily by emailing our attorney hotline, splc@splc.org.

Young people get kind of a bad rap about being tuned-out slackers. This is probably not something unique to the current generation. Young people are often accused of being clicktavists: people who only participate in public issues and events by liking something on Facebook or perhaps retweeting it, but there are better stories to tell about the work of young people in helping to bring issues of public concern to widespread attention and to make social change, and our guest on the SPLC podcast, Dawson Barrett, is the storyteller to tell them.

He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, from which he holds a doctoral degree in history. He has taught history at Del Mar College in Texas, and he is about to release a new book called Teenage Rebels. And Teenage Rebels, which I’m going to let Dawson Barrett describe to you in more detail, encapsulates some of the stories over the generations of how young people have used their voice productively to make social change, often up against some of the obstacles that those of you who follow the SPLC are well familiar with.

So I’m going to let Dawson Barrett take over and tell us first a little about himself and how it is that you came to be interested in this subject.

Dawson Barrett: Sure, thanks for having me on Frank. It’s a pleasure to be here. Well I’m actually a historian of social movements in sort of a broad sense, so I’m really pretty new to the subject of youths in particular, so bear with me on that, though I do teach high school students in addition to college students.

But I find the struggle of high school students to be especially fascinating, as I’m sure you know from your work, that on the one hand, teenagers find themselves in this bind where they have adult expectations and challenges that they face around sex and sexuality, sexual violence, depression and suicide, they can be recruited to the military, they drive cars, how they perform on tests impacts how they do in life. But at the same time, despite these adult responsibilities, their freedoms are really quite limited because they have no direct impact on the people that make the rules and the laws that they have to follow.

For me, this project is in some ways a litmus test for how the powerless in society can kind of push back and fight for a better world. So Teenage Rebels is the book. In theory it is geared toward teenagers, that’s who I want to get it into the hands of, but I think it’s also for adults — for teachers and parents who would be their allies in some of these conflicts.

LoMonte: We should mention that the book Teenage Rebels includes some vignettes and some stories about students who worked with the Student Press Law Center, including Tanvi Kumar and her classmates at Fond du Lac High School in Wisconsin, who pushed back against student censorship when they were being told not to write about date rape because the topic was too mature and too adult for their audience. They were able, after working with allies in the community, to actually get overturned a very punitive, draconian publications policy and to get a much better one installed in its place, and so that’s a mini success story about the work of student voices in contemporary America.

But of course you book goes quite a bit back before then, talks about the voices of youth in the civil rights movement, in the environmental movement, I guess share, if you don’t mind, a couple of favorite stories or a couple of anecdotes out of your research.

Barrett: Sure. Well I have many favorites. Again, the book is about 50 different stories, so I’m certainly partial to those that made big lasting change, those that led to Supreme Court cases, whether it be Brown v. Board, which incidentally is one of the cases that folded into Brown v. Board was from a student walkout, or Tinker v. Des Moines, which established some free-speech rights for students, and I also like the stories that are fun, like the true story behind Footloose, which was an actual event.

But generally I’d say my favorites are the ones that make your jaw drop, they’re just sort of shocking, so I have two big ones in mind. I’ll give you one, and if we have time I’ll talk about the second one as well.

So here’s my story:

In 1950, 30,000 New York City high school students went on strike for a week, so each day more and more students walked out of class and marched on city hall. But instead of meeting with the students, the mayor ordered 100 police, including 25 on horseback, to surround and defend city hall. They even called in the FBI, so there’s this great headline from the newspapers nationwide where the FBI is bragging that they foiled a student plot to create a diversion that was going to draw the police away and expose poor, vulnerable city hall.

So there is this big standoff every day between police and teenagers, and it is massive, but the punchline is the students only had one demand, and it was that they wanted raises for their teachers, and a year later he did so they won.

But I think it sort of conflicts with many peoples’ understanding of the student/teacher relationship as their adversarial.

LoMonte: That’s so interesting, and you mentioned that the demand was really very modest and very reasonable, and that’s been our experience in working with students as well. Very often, when students are censored in trying to use their voices, they’re actually advocating for really rather modest, common-sense reforms in their schools. I can recall several stories in the past year in which students have been trying to write about something of no greater controversy than smoking in restrooms, and they have been told not to publicize this school’s lax enforcement of the anti-smoking policy because schools are so image conscience about that, and here are students, in fact, trying to ensure that their classmates play by the rues and color inside the lines and ensure that rules get enforced, which would not be considered an especially radical proposition, and yet they are sometimes even swatted down when they try to accomplish that.

Barrett: Right. Ya absolutely, it’s interesting you mentioned that great case from Fond du Lac, and there are a few more in the book that are sort of related to the student press and censorship from above. In almost every case, actually, that is what the principal or the school board says is that the student paper should be printing things that make the school look good.

In a some ways, a lot of these conflicts are over the principal of the matter, but the principals matter.

LoMonte: Ya, and certainly you mentioned the Tinker case, which was about the wearing of anti-war armbands to school, certainly not a life and death matter to the students involved, but a principal that mattered a great deal to them, and one that wound up in 1969 making an enduring legal precedent. We know, actually, from First Amendment case law in the adult world that it is often small gestures of symbolic expression that wind up making great law. I’m reminded of the Cohen case, the young man who wouldn’t change his “eff the draft” T-shirt when he was told to leave the courthouse or change his attire. I’m reminded of the Westboro Baptist Church people, more recently in Snyder v. Phelps, whose speech is of no great consequence or value at all and yet established a very important First Amendment precedent that for people who follow them, and so we certainly shouldn’t minimize the value of speech of students just because it may not seem like they are playing for especially high stakes.

You mentioned the 1950s New York protest over teacher salaries. Was there a second story that you’d like to share along those lines as well?

Barrett: Ya, another one that I think sort of packages up all the things that I’m working toward, and this one is from 1936 so it’s sort of in the deep belly of the Great Depression, and this was in Alameda, California.

A recently elected mayor of Alameda started firing public officials and replacing them with all of his cronies. He fired the superintendent of schools, the high school students went on strike and demanded that he be rehired. Normally when students do things like skipping class, authorities try to frame them as childish and spoiled and it usually works. But in this case, the mayor had made so many political enemies that the students got support from all over, and so the newspaper printed a positive story about the walkout, which is sort of rare, a local hotel offered to host a benefit dance so the students could buy strike supplies. That’s the actual statement in the newspaper: ‘This is a benefit for strike supplies.’

Parents started a recall petition against the mayor, and the mayor freaked out. And again, you see these small things kind of ballooning. The mayor actually threatened to declare martial law, which is I think a pretty extreme response, but thankfully the district attorney warned him that if there was any bloodshed he would hold him personally accountable.

So instead the superintendent had to cave, he rehired the superintendent and later had to resign facing corruption and bribery charges, and so the students won in this case and it became national news, and it led to a small student strike wave around the country, where students would go on strike and chant ‘Well the kids in Alameda won, why cant we?’

A fun fact about this story that I like is the district attorney, who sort of refused to cooperate, was actually Earl Warren, who decades later became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and actually wrote the Brown v. Board decision.

LoMonte: Sure, and was the chief justice during the time of the Tinker v. Des Moines case as well. Wow, how fascinating. I wasn’t aware of that history, wow.

Well, you can almost draw a line between those student protests in the 1930s and the 1950s into what we’re seeing today, where students are organizing more and more frequently around the issue of high-stake standardized testing. While we haven’t seen tens of thousands of students massing on city hall yet, we’ve certainly seen isolated instances of students walking out of school, staging demonstrations or just voting with their feet by opting-out of taking these tests, as is their legal right, and starting opt-out movements or participating in them around the country.

I guess I’m wondering, do you see any sort of a renaissance of activism by young people, perhaps around issues of educational quality and standardized testing? Is that something we can anticipate seeing more of in the future?

Barrett: Well, I think that’s an interesting question, and I think sort of the nature of mass media today, it moves so quickly it is hard to pin down what the big trends are. I can tell you in the last year the high schoolers have definitely been in the forefront, definitely in walkouts against testing in places like New Mexico and Illinois and some others, they are definitely at the forefront of Black Lives Matter protests.

Just last week, actually, there was a big walkout, a citywide walking in Newark, New Jersey, where students have been fighting against an attempt to really take over the schools. The state is taking over the city’s schools and privatizing them and using voucher programs and closing down schools, and basically the same thing that has been happening all over the country including in Chicago. So I think you’re right. You see students pushing back because they know it is their future on the line, which I think might fly in the face of many people’s assumptions about students saving schools, but they actually realize they have a stake here, so I do think there’s something going on there.

LoMonte: Well it’s interesting, I mentioned at the outset that there is a widespread sense that young people are tuned out from politics and disengaged from public life and the sum total of their involvement in any type of civics is clicking a thumbs-up button, and I’m wondering what you think about that. Do you think that social media has been a game changer for better or for worse in therms of both the level and the intensity in student engagement in making social change?

Barrett: You know, on the one hand it’s never been easier to get the message out. You can’t reach worldwide audiences in seconds, but of course that means there is this massive volume of news and information that is basically impossible to digest let alone sustain a social movement.

So I do see that problem and I want to turn to that critique in a moment, but on the upside, if you look at movements like Occupy Wall Street or the labor protests in Wisconsin in 2011, you know social media actually played a key role there because people were posting all of these pictures to Twitter and Facebook, and they basically said ‘Hey, if you can join us tomorrow, we’ll be at the same place at the same time,’ and those movements sort of built that way. So I do think there is a potential that is being tapped in there, but I definitely feel what you’re saying about the dead ends of the internet. I think hashtag movements are one of the worst culprits here because there is this common misconception here that if you raise awareness it will lead directly to change, and it just doesn’t. That’s an important step and that’s why I think what the Student Press Law Center does is so important, because we need critical investigative journalism, whether that’s The New York Times or your high school paper, but there also has to be another step, where we actually challenge the people in power to give us what we want — whether that’s at the ballot box or in the courts or with our wallets, or in the streets.

So I think social media has the potential to be really important if it leads to that pressure so we can actually effect change.

LoMonte: Well one of the other things that has changed over time, you mentioned student activism in the 1930s and the 1950s, what has changed in recent history is that student First Amendment rights and the ability to use your voice safely without fear of retaliation from your school has actually gone backward in recent years because of court rulings like the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case, where in 1988 the Supreme Court actually diminished the First Amendment rights of students when they’re using student media or other school-provided forums to carry their voices, and we’re now seeing a generation of court rulings, many of which point in different and confusing directions, about the ability of students to freely speak on off-campus social media free from school authority.

There are at least some judges who believe that school authority extends to off-campus social media because the speech has the ability to reach and have an impact on the campus and so, perhaps contrary to what one might have thought with the advent of social media, that this was an empowering change that was going to result in students having an uncensored forum in which to organize and exchange ideas, what it has actually done in some instances is expand the school’s jurisdictional authority, such that it actually winds up following you home on the weekend, conversely to popular wisdom.

Barrett: Ya, absolutely. I think that’s sort of the sum total of the Internet is that it has great possibilities and great limitations and I think the jury is still out on how it is going to play out for people.

LoMonte: Well in the few minutes we have remaining, I guess just talk about not only the book and where people can get a copy of Teenage Rebels, I definitely want people to pick that up, but also about where your research goes next. Are you interested in following up on this and studying it further, do you have any further plans to explore this field and this area?

Barrett: Sure, well let me get the plug out of the way. So you can get the book now at microcosmpublishing.com, the name of the publisher, Microcosm. Or, by July 14 you should be able to get it anywhere, your local bookstore, etcetera, hopefully the teen section of your local library.

So let me just say that, I think young people today are actually being dealt a tremendously unfair hand, I think the generations that are in charge right now, if we can think of the world in those terms, should really be fairly ashamed of the baton we’re handing off.

I think the generation is left holding the bag on, you know, expanding and widespread social and economic inequality, mass incarceration, the catastrophic impacts of climate change, and I think a pretty clear, widespread assault on public education that is funneling money out of schools and into the pockets of corporations, and driving teachers out of the profession, and actually burdening college students with decades of student loans.

So I think young people, in many ways, are getting a raw deal. But I still have hope because I think if anyone is up for it, I think the young people are. I think there are extremely promising youth movements in the U.S. right now. Again, I mentioned some are on police violence and standardized testing, school curriculum and education funding.

Last fall there was a big wave of protests in Colorado because people wanted to change the curriculum of AP U.S. history to downplay inequality and instead promote patriotism and a respect for authority. And so instead students, and some of their teachers, went on strike and picketed for awhile. So this project for me, it really might be quite hopeful for the future. I think a bigger question might be ‘what is the role that adults are going to choose to play in these conflicts?’

So I’m going to keep teaching, and I’ve got other research projects lined up, but what I’m really going to try to do now is to be as good of an ally as I can to the young people who are doing things now.

LoMonte: Well I always like to end on an optimistic note, and that’s wonderfully optimistic, so we hope that other adults will get inspired to work with young people as well, to be allies, to help them find and to safely use their voices.

I want to say thanks to Professor Dawson Barrett. The book, again, is called Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists from the Little Rock 9 to the Class of Tomorrow. It’s available both in print and ebook. I definitely encourage you to check that out and to follow all of the news about student rights that we offer on the splc.org website.

If you’re interested in this subject, follow us on social media, we’re on Twitter @SPLC, you can sign up for weekly news alerts on the SPLC website, and if you have any questions at all about your legal rights as a student or an educator, we’re always available by email at splc@splc.org, or at (202) 785-5450.

Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll talk to you next month.