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Austin Students Get Lesson On How To Turn Complaints Into Political Action

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Olivia Hoffman, a freshman at Austin High School, helped organize a student walkout and rally at the state Capitol.

Hundreds of high school students in Austin are planning to walk out of school tomorrow and rally outside the Capitol as part of a nationwide walkout to call for more gun control and better school safety.

Olivia Hoffman, a freshman at Austin High School, has been working with students around the city to plan the event. She said she’s putting in so much work because the issue of gun violence and school safety are so important to people her age.

“I think it’s an issue that affects every student in America and every American in general,” she said. “Gun safety is something that is going to shape America’s future and especially my generation’s future.”

For the last few months, she and other organizers have met regularly. They’ve raised money to buy ribbons for students to wear and to provide buses to bring kids to the Capitol. She said they learned how to get a permit for the rally and to deal with details like microphones and audio equipment.

What she’s most proud of is how such a large group of students from across the city worked together to make it happen.

“I think we’ve learned how to communicate better and what it should look like to organize something,” she said.

Engagement Isn't Just For 'Old People'

Olivia learned these lessons on her own, but some teachers see students' passion about issues as learning opportunities.

Earlier this year, business teacher Medina Willis and her students at Lanier High found out the school board was considering changing the name of the school because its namesake was a Confederate soldier.

They didn’t agree with spending a bunch of money to change the name; they'd rather see money spent on maintenance issues.

It started as a classroom discussion and became a challenge for Willis, who said she hadn't previously been civically active.

“I have avoided that like the plague,” she said. “Talking in front of people makes me nervous; I never wanted to be politically active.”

"In order for anything to change, we have to be able to speak that truth and be able to have what we need heard."

But as she saw how passionate her students were, she decided to teach them how to make their voices heard. She changed the curriculum of her class and used the issue of the name change as a project. Her first lesson: It does no good to complain about something to yourself.

“A lot of times we think that, 'Oh, nobody cares. They’re not going to listen,’" she said. “But they’re not listening because nobody is speaking. So, in order for anything to change, we have to be able to speak that truth and be able to have what we need heard.”

At first, she said, the students told her they were going to protest.

“And I was like – 'No, no, no. Before you protest, No. 1, you need to know what you’re talking about,'” Willis said. “So, take the time to do the research; do the background information so that you can then talk to who is important.”

They researched the namesakes of other schools in the district to compare their background to Lanier's. Then, Willis told them about different ways they could communicate their complaints about repairs.

Junior Cris Pantoj helped file a complaint about issues she saw with bathroom stalls and sinks.

“I did email the school board,” she said. “And I also took pictures around, so Ms. Willis could send it to them so they could see that we’re not lying, that it’s true there are problems here and they do need to be fixed."

Senior Fredy Vaca initially wanted to protest the name change, but Willis taught him about more constructive ways to be heard.

“I didn’t even know that we could go to school board meetings,” Fredy said. “I thought that was just for teachers and old people. I'd like to go there, but I didn’t even know it was for students, too.”

'It's Always Hopeful'

The school board did eventually vote to change the name of the school. Willis said the students were disappointed because they felt they hadn’t won.

“But we did,” she said. “The issues that we were voicing are being fixed. The bathroom stalls are being built for the boys. The bathroom sinks that were decrepit and falling apart for the girls, they've been replaced. Things are happening and we’re seeing the work that we did. It’s happening.”

Willis said she also felt it was a win for how much her students learned. She said at the beginning of the school year she struggled to get kids to speak up, and now they engage in discussions and debates. Seeing how much they accomplished makes her realize how adults need to listen to teenagers more often.

“They are way smarter and more resilient than we really give them credit for,” she said. “And if we listen to what they have to say, they can provide a lot of solutions for issues that we’re dealing with as adults because they have no fear. It’s always hopeful.”

Hope is what organizer Olivia Hoffman is bringing to the Capitol tomorrow. She said she knows convincing the Republican-dominated Legislature to change gun laws will be tough, but she wants to try.

“I think that one thing that can unite us in the future is that nobody wants kids to die in schools,” Olivia said. “I think that eventually people will come together over that, hopefully.”

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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