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To Protest or Not to Protest

Faculty, alumni, students, and staff from Harvard Graduate School of Education and MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab launch an online resource for young people interested in making their voices heard and advocating for change.

Youth in FrontIn the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February, students have risen up, making their opinions on gun violence and school safety known, and planning protests and days of action to engage policymakers, their communities, and the nation on these important issues.

Educators from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Teaching Systems Lab, and the instructional design firm Fresh Cognate have created Youth in Front, a new hub of learning-oriented resources and multimedia assets for young activists and the educators and adult allies interested making their voices heard — particularly those who are stepping into activism for the first time, and for the educators who are responding to action in their schools and communities.

“Students who are considering joining their first protest or walkout, or getting civically involved in other ways, have many questions,” says Meira Levinson, professor of education at HGSE and one of the creators of Youth in Front. “They want to know, ‘What's the point of a march? Will I get in trouble? Will anyone join me? How do I talk to adults about this? How does a march turn into a movement?’ We wanted to create a timely, well-organized learning resource to answer some of those questions. Most importantly, we believe that the best people to answer those questions are experienced youth activists and allies who can help students make informed decisions.”

With large-scale protests against gun violence set for March 14, March 24, and April 20, the organizers of Youth in Front saw the need for immediate resources for student activists. Over 50 faculty, alumni, staff, and students from HGSE and MIT came together to help create and curate the materials for the site.

“One of the primary reasons that we have community-funded public schools in this country is to provide young people an apprenticeship in citizenship. Schools are natural places for students to start a lifetime of work as civic actors,” said Justin Reich, Ed.D.’12, co-founder of Youth in Front, executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. “We are inspired by the surge of youth activism from Ferguson to Parkland, and we want to support these leaders — to put youth in front — by sharing the wisdom and experience of experienced youth activists and allies. Students, teachers, and educators will face challenging decisions in the weeks and months ahead; hopefully this resource provides useful guidance and reminds everyone that youth political activity is fundamental to the purposes of public schooling. ”

Youth in Front offers two distinct portals: one for students and one for educators. For students, content covers topic areas such as: How do I organize a protest? Will I get in trouble? How do I get adults on my side? For teachers, questions about how they can support students within the policies and procedures of their schools and districts, how they can be allies, and what happens after the march or day of action are addressed.

Resources for young people, educators and district leaders, and parents will be shared via HGSE’s Usable Knowledge and social channels. As the team continues to build up resources and content, students will be able to engage with Youth in Front via Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. Allied organizations such as Teaching Tolerance, Facing History and Ourselves, and Generation Citizen contributed key resources, and will help to get the word out about Youth in Front and to disseminate the content.

“We knew that in order for these resources to be immediately usable, we had to reach youth and students where they are every day,” said Andy Riemer, an HGSE master's candidate in human development and psychology. “Social media has an incredible power to share information, and fast, with a broad audience, and a majority of youth are on these communication channels for their day-to-day interactions. We’re going to be creating specific content for these channels and hope that youth utilize it and share it widely with their peers.”

Youth in Front was also meaningful for the graduate students who contributed, working on a tight deadline, and over the weekend, to pull these resources together.

“If we say we want student agency, then what are we willing to do to support it?” said RoLesia Holman, a master's candidate in technology, innovation, and education at HGSE. “I was happy to offer my time and knowledge to enable students to be more involved in what happens in their schools. I also believe it is multi-generational advocacy, action, and leadership that will make the greatest impact in our society. In addition to education experts and those with years of experience in practice, we had so many people from different backgrounds and skill sets coming together around this effort.”

Youth In Front encourages educators, parents, and students to continue to contribute to their ongoing efforts. There is an urgent and ongoing need for more information and education that can help youth activists, especially novices, make informed choices as they participate in upcoming actions.

“This is an opportunity for tens of thousands of middle and high schools students, teachers, parents and community members across the country to begin or continue their involvement in youth activism,” said Doug Pietrzak, Ed.M.'11, who is a co-founder of Youth in Front, an instructional designer working in learning design at Google, and the founder of Fresh Cognate. “As folks with experience with youth and online learning, we see an opportunity for us to be allies, educators, and passionate supporters to youth.”

Photo: Professor Meira Levinson leads a group at Youth in Front's first Create-a-thon. Credit: Youth in Front.