Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Brennen
Children should be seen, not heard.
So goes the antiquated phrase, one with roots in the stuffy drawing rooms of a bygone age. But, says master’s student Andrew Brennen, the phrase’s noxious influence lingers in American culture, limiting the perspectives of educational organizations and silencing students.
“A lot of adults think that young people can’t contribute to organizations in meaningful ways,” he explains, pointing to the lack of student voice on school boards, boards of directors, and in institutional governance roles across the country. “I think that for many adults, it takes seeing what’s possible when young people are fully engaged in order to change their perspective.”
Brennen, recently named among Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in education, is committed to helping more adults recognize the power of student voice — and to advocating with students to have their voices heard. As a high school junior in Kentucky, Brennan became aggravated by the inequities pervading the Kentucky education system, which he saw first-hand but had no voice in addressing. Not happy with this, Brennen and a group of peers worked with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Kentucky-based education advocacy group, to form the Kentucky Student Voice Team with the clear goal of empowering students to advocate for themselves and their peers across the state. After meeting to discuss their perspectives and frustrations, Brennen and his co-founders realized that they didn’t just want their voices heard, they wanted seats at the table.
“We believed then — and still believe — that education policy decision-makers, researchers, and leaders are operating with one hand tied behind their backs when they do not robustly include the perspectives of the ‘stakeholders-in-chief’ — aka students — in our education systems,” says Brennen.
Eight years since its founding, the Kentucky Student Voice Team has largely succeeded in its mission to bring student voices into powerful spaces. The organization, which is now independent of the Pritchard Committee, is made up of more than 100 self-selecting Kentucky students, elementary school through college. Brennen, who currently supports the organization’s high school leadership team, points to the group’s achievements as evidence of the ability young people have to impact organizations in positive ways.
“In Kentucky, we’ve seen young people leading campaigns that have raised millions of dollars to support low-income student scholarships. We’ve seen emergency studies led by students to better understand the impact COVID-19 is having on classmates. We’ve seen robust storytelling around the trip wires that too many young people are facing when it comes to getting to and through college,” says Brennen.
Although Brennen is concerned with amplifying student voice globally — doing so was part of his work as a 2020 National Geographic Education Fellow — his heart lies in his home state of Kentucky, where he is living as he attends HGSE this year, thanks to the school’s decision to move its master’s program entirely online. Brennen has been able to bring “the skills, networks, and knowledge offered by HGSE” directly into his work in his home state. “I have been able to take things that I’ve learned in the classroom and immediately apply them in advocacy, in supporting students in the legislative session in Kentucky right now,” he says.
To many politicians, advocates, and policymakers, the idea of including students in key decision-making processes is uncomfortable. What can high schoolers and young adults possibly know about the important educational issues facing government and nonprofit organizations? It is a question that Brennen is used to.
“Young people can be resources for a wide range of education advocacy, but only if they’re invited in, only if they feel like there are folks on their staff and in the organization that care to work with them,” says Brennen, drawing a distinct line between true student participation and the superficial youth participation adult leaders may be imagining. “It is important that organizations are providing space for young people to be heard but not siloing their voices in a ceremonial corner.”
When leaders do provide students with genuine positions of influence, such as on their boards of directors, and when students are provided with the proper supports for success — like compensation and mentorship — students have the potential to help organizations refine and amplify their impacts on targeted communities, Brennen explains. “Adults generally underestimate how different young people’s experiences, both from a social and an educational perspective, are from their own.”
When organizations make space for student voice, they benefit — and so does society. As Brennen sees it, “our schools are meant to be incubators for our democracy.” To build a democracy where citizens are engaged, have agency, work collaboratively, and have empathy, he explains, young people need to be learning those skills while in school. Placing young people in decision-making positions allows them access to these skills. “To not do that, to not engage in those ways, is a real missed opportunity for educators and for our society overall,” he says.
Ultimately, this is what drives Brennen: the belief that young people, when empowered, can use their perspectives and experiences to build a better world.
“Fifty percent of the global population is under the age of 30, and young people around the world are already on the forefront of the issues that are key to achieving equity,” says Brennen. “I am constantly talking to young people, learning from young people, and trying to understand how adults can better support them. If you respect and honor the agency that young people have, you can engage them as partners to co-create a better world.”