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Speaking truth to power in St. Louis

Youth share concerns with school board members, push for changes

St. Louis YUIR members speak to the School Board Sept 2019
St. Louis YUIR member T'Mya Pulphus speaks to the School Board at its September 2019 meeting. Photo: Jonathan Pulphus / AFSC

Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) St. Louis interns spoke their truths at September’s St. Louis Public School Board Meeting. These young people presented their views on policy before the school board officials. They argued for improvements around teaching, testing, and safety officers.

Follow-up from the session led to an awareness that there must be better processes for addressing student concerns. Nevertheless, this was a powerful moment in youth advocacy for these scholars to lift up their voices.

To speak truth to power was always a goal of the young people. Prior to becoming YUIR interns, T’Mya Pulphus, Kevin Backstrom, and Lauryn Holmes participated in the April YUIR Alternative Spring Break. During this session, the larger group of youth identified different issues of importance to them. These issues ranged from teaching to school lunches.

They had an opportunity to voice their concerns before board representatives Ms. Charli Cooksey and Ms. Joyce Roberts. This opportunity to express their viewpoints served as a foundation for all of the youth for future advocacy.

The day of the board meeting, each YUIR intern prepared to give their all before the public and board. They each prepared notes, rehearsed their talking points, and gave feedback to each other. When they entered the meeting room, they signed their names on the public comments agenda. In order of speaking, there was T’Mya, Kevin, and Lauryn. They were ready to do their best.

Each of the interns touched on an issue and did a wonderful job arguing it. They stood before the podium and articulated their perspectives on the question. T’Mya called for culturally sensitivity training for teachers. She stressed that there must be an understanding of the diversity of the student body reflected in the style and substance of instruction.

Kevin spoke to the pitfalls of standardized testing and benefits of culturally relevant curriculum. He emphasized that students’ future shouldn't be measured by high stakes tests, and classes should include knowledge about oppressed communities.

Lauryn talked about the need for accountability around school safety officers. She made it clear that those ordained to protect must be held to a standard by the protected. Following each of their comments, they each received a thunderous applause.

AFSC St. Louis Program Director Joshua Saleem followed up with the school board about next steps, which revealed holes in the integrity of the board meetings. While youth are able to speak before the board, there's no guarantee that their issues will be included on the board’s agenda.

This is frustrating because the St. Louis School Board exists to serve the needs of young people. There must be a representative that answers their needs. Every public or private meeting should be about the business of ensuring that scholars and their voices matter. They face many obstacles in their journey to become alumni, yet having a seat at their own table shouldn't be one of them.