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Recently an article appeared on my newsfeed detailing a letter sent by the Desert Mirage High School student government to the high school administration and Coachella Valley Unified School District staff in support of a teachers’ strike for fair salaries. After reading the letter, I was both impressed and surprised not only by the well-written content, but also that this sort of initiative was even discussed at the high school level, let alone endorsed by the entirety of the student government.

Due to a variety of historical, environmental, cultural and socioeconomic factors, this sort of consciousness and activism was far less common during my experiences growing in the educational systems in the South and Appalachia; factors which make student organizing at the high school level that much more important.

Today we’ll take a look at how these differences developed,¬† why doing starting political activism and organizing in high school is crucial, and how student organizers can still remain active in Red States.


Politics Unusual

One of the starkest differences between Red and Blue State high schoolers is how politics and organizing are viewed, and the social acceptance of such activity being conducted by high school students.

Schools in coastal regions such as the San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles areas are steeped in a rich history of student activism, from Civil Rights walkouts to protests over the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The general lack of codified segregation helped create multiracial coalitions advocating for change, and thus politics often goes hand-in-hand with organizing for students in these regions. Common and accepted political activities frequently include demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins, civil disobedience and publication of independent alternative media. Education itself was also valued highly by both the elite and working classes, resulting in a “scholarly background” holding more cultural weight in the majority of locales within Blue States.

The situation in the South, Midwest and Appalachia differs greatly. As the more geographically challenging regions of the nation, admiration of prowess in basic physical and survival-oriented tasks was frequently valued above success in academics, thus the construction and maintenance of schools were held in less importance than farms, forts and mines. Furthermore, the history of segregation in both education and civil society insulated many school districts from the important political and organizing work being done by people of color. This widespread unfamiliarity with community organization combined with the academic field lacking the prestige it held elsewhere created a perception that aggressive political activity was only being carried out by “outside agitators”.

These circumstances in the Red States constrained modern views of politics and organizing into a small Overton Window of what is considered by acceptable and achievable. The narrowly defined realm of politics remains confined voting and the occasional electoral campaign, while organizing centers around talk radio hosts agitating listeners and inciting anger within communities, which while occasionally justified when stemming from economic downtowns, rarely translates into tangible actions.

The closest events to student protests and demonstrations were often religiously motivated and organized through churches on big-ticket social issues such as abortion, which had little effect on the everyday life in the community. Mass student demonstrations and protests were often associated with images of coddled coastal elitism, a view reinforced by local values of self-reliance and resilience in the face of adversity.


Why Get Active? Why Get Organized?

Most issues faced by high school-aged youth transcend traditional partisan divides, and allow fertile ground for inclusive local organizing initiatives. Concerns over adequate funding for school resources, over-policing of students and access to college and trade school preparation are shared across party, race and gender lines.

Learning organizing and advocacy skills early-on also crosses over as an employable skill in numerous industries. Most large firms and agencies are essentially large bureaucracies, and being able to identifying stakeholders and decision makers and advocate for resources necessary to carry out one’s duties can make one a valuable employee.

Perhaps most importantly, student organizing in high school instills the perception that working to create positive change in one’s community is both possible and acceptable. The new skills and worldviews gained in high school can result in a lifetime of civic and community engagement.


Creating Change at Home

Begin with a less controversial goal with a broad base of support, along with a way to measure progress (ex. advocating for the continuation of an at-risk yet popular elective course). If possible, choose an existing organization to sponsor the proposal or initiative, such as the student government, Democrat or Republican club or civics club.

Decide on a way to measure progress, consult existing organizing resources such as online guidebooks, gather allies and identify decision-makers. Promote the initiative through the media, schedule meetings with decision-makers, and publicize the results once the goal is achieved.

Once the initial objectives and victories are achieved and a framework for organizing has been built, one can shift focus to larger and/or more controversial proposals. Always be cognizant of the language and methods of outreach in relation the views and culture of the community at large, and aim for bipartisanship when possible. For instance, a teach-in focused on over-policing of youth might want feature both Cenk Uyghur and Milo Yiannopoulos giving their reasons for opposition to the practice in order to show the broad consensus surrounding the issue.

Additionally, don’t be shy about involving organizations that have unique appeal in Red States. The influence of the institution of the church can have an outsized effect, and approaching clergy to make an appeal, or at least recognize, the work being done on an issue of community concern¬† can pay dividends. Most local pastors and church leaders are already heavily involved in their community and may be open to speaking out on issues involving education or local access to resources.

Eventually, consider institutionalizing an organizing and advocacy branch as part of your student government, similar to the External Vice Presidents Office or Bruin Lobby Corps at UCLA.