Student Empowerment, Advocacy, and Agency

Posted by David Hickson on Jan 25, 2016 9:02:11 AM


Perhaps each generation struggles with how to empower the generations that come after them.  It bothers me that my generation, the “baby boomers,” trips over this.  I was born in 1960, towards the end of the baby boomer generation; I was old enough to witness (if still too young to fully respond to) the calls for local and global social justice, a reawakening of the environmental movement, the expansion of creative expression, and the rebalancing of political power structures that took place during the 60’s and early 70’s.

 Many in my generation have seen ourselves as change agents, advocates, and crusaders.  So why have we, who were so vocal about engaging and changing the world, who sought to wrest the tiller from the hands of our elders, not found better ways to empower the next generations of change agents and leaders?

 Today’s young people have been described as the most anxious and most compliant generation in American history, shouldered with debt, ill-served by their schools, hunkered down in an age of mega-institutions, terrorism, and looming climate change, strung out on social media.  

And yet there is good news - lots of it.  Young people are not waiting around for us to empower them.  They are empowering themselves.  They’re not strung out on social media, they are using new media tools to build community and address the problems they see.   

Here are three counterexamples that make false pervasive pessimism and low expectations:

1. TeensDream Video Competition

  Take a few minutes to review the winning videos from the Teens Dream video competition.  These are not the works of passive, frightened, compliant young victims.  Each short video speaks to a passionate, caring, empowered young person who is using new media to have an impact on a community or the world.  If spending 10 minutes on the Teens Dream website does not pump some optimism into you, then you are, well, not... engaged, alive, maybe open... not something.   


2. Jeffersonian Dinners:

At Sandy Spring Friends School, a  group of high school students came together this year to form a group called “Think Tank X.”  Think Tank X is a forum for students to examine issues in the School and their lives and then develop ways to work for change. That alone serves as an example to the rest of us.   As a group they elected to host a “salon,” modeled in on the Jeffersonian Dinner concept.

 I won’t attempt a general explanation of Jeffersonian Dinners here, only to say the students invited a number of adults to join them in a conversation about academic course choices and student input at our school.  It was well-organized, optimistic, inclusive, and empowering for all who attended. I have rarely been so proud of our students, and I’m pretty proud already.  They did not occupy the administration building (as my generation might have done), nor did they assume futility.  They engaged in constructive dialogue with an expectation that something would happen.  The students learned more about the academic inner workings of a faculty and school, and the adults learned a lot about the perspectives of students and the depth of their character.   More will come from this discussion group than just a great Sunday afternoon conversation, because the students are taking risks by “putting themselves out there.”  They embraced advocacy, and they created agency (the power to make a difference). 


3. The Plight of the Elephants:

Over the past two years one of our SSFS elementary students became extremely concerned about the plight of elephants around the world, especially in Thailand.  What did this young student do?   An eloquent, detailed version is beautifully described in a blog post by art teacher Kate Santorineos, and also narrated in an article in the Washington Post.  The short version is that this inspired student decided to take action by asking herself “What can I do?”  She did not say “I’m just a child,” or “Somebody (else) should do something about this.”  She educated herself, became an advocate, and invented ways to put her passion and labor into action by making clay elephants to sell, in order to raise funds to help address the problem (agency).  And she is not stopping there. This is what Mohandas Gandhi meant when he said “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”  


Helping students find their voice for advocacy, and agency, is at the heart of a Sandy Spring Friends education.  The School’s motto “Let Your Lives Speak” captures this spirit.  Students are taught in an environment that assumes our lives are intended to mean something, that we are supposed to make a difference wherever we find ourselves to be, and that each of us has the capacity to pursue a better world, no matter what our background, our situation, our talents, or our age.


David Hickson is an educator and administrator who has worked at several independent and parochial schools over the past 30 years.  He currently serves as the Assistant Head of School for Academic Innovation at Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring, Maryland.

Topics: Academics

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