February 2014 podcast: A new group is helping students make sure their voices are heard

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Zak Malamed, founder of Student Voice, joined SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte to discuss his organization’s goals and the importance of engaging young people.

Frank LoMonte: Hi and welcome to another monthly edition of the Student Press Law Center podcast. I’m Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC is an advocate for student voices, we help young people learn, understand and use the law to do great journalism and to gather and share ideas. The SPLC’s online at www.SPLC.org and we invite and encourage you to check out all the educational resources we have for you. Well, the Student Press Law Center is about student voices. And in fact, we ran a campaign a few years back called the Tomorrow’s Voices campaign. But the great thing about student voices is that young people are not waiting for tomorrow to make themselves heard. Around the country, across campuses from coast to coast, people are making themselves heard right now on the issues that concern them, whether it be the environment, immigration reform, the high cost of tuition. With us to talk about the power and the importance of student voices is Zak Malamed, who started an organization called Student Voice. It is online at stuvoice.org, we encourage you to check their website out. Zak is a sophomore at the University of Maryland at College Park. He’s the founder and executive director of Student Voice, a really exciting young organization in every sense of the word. Young in its history and young in its ideas and its staffing and leadership. So Zak, welcome and thanks for joining us. Let’s just dive in first about you, about how you came to this sort of life of activism and how Student Voice came to be.

Zak Malamed: Sure and thanks for having me this morning, Frank. So, I guess, just to start, a quick little recap of the Student Voice story. I guess my story as well. I grew up in Long Island, N.Y., I was high school president after three unsuccessful tries, I finally worked out the last try. So, I really[unclear] for what student voice was like and I also got a bit of an understanding of how student voice could be inhibited within the school environment. So, I started to engage myself in conversation about education policy. Around that time, the New York State Education Reform Commission had formed in New York where I wanted to make sure the student voice had a presence there. I formed a commission to reform education in the state of New York and obviously, because it makes so much sense that they didn’t include the student voice in the Commission whatsoever, they have every other stake holder, except the stake holder who’s actually being impacted by the decisions that they’re making, because that’s how education policy has been working for so long.

Frank LoMonte: Right, the customer’s always wrong.

Zak Malamed: Yeah, exactly. But, but things are changing. And that’s in large part due to the fact that students are organizing. But, despite the fact that students are organizing, I also see the youth organizing maybe as the most disorganized industry that there is. Because we’re all doing so many great things, but in so many different ways and we’re not really well connected. And I think social media really provides a platform for us to connect in ways that we’ve never been able to do so before. So, to back track a little bit, I’ve been fairly active on Twitter with a friend of mine in the education act, Nikhil Goyal, we’d been engaging ourselves in education conversation, and what I noticed is that on Twitter there are three big communities: Justin Bieber fans, NRA members and the education community. And of course, I’m generalizing a bit there, but in recognizing that, I saw the great presence that [unclear] had and the dedication that they had towards continuing the conversation around improving the education climate in the United States and beyond. But, there was no real place for students. And when Nikhil and I started to join those conversations, it came as a bit of a surprise to them. With that said, I only had a couple, you know, 200 followers or so, but after attending a few conferences and getting myself involved in these conversations, I reached out to the folks at Dell, the computer company, and said you guys have a couple hundred-thousand followers, if not more than that, would you be able to at least promote this chat to get it started. And, it took off. I mean we had presidential candidates, journalists, educators and most importantly students taking part in these chats. I leveled the playing field in this conversation, where instead of it being a top-down conversation, you really could, although virtually, speak face-to-face with some very influential figures. And it’s been going on since May 7, 2012, just so happened to be Teacher Appreciation Day, so for about a year and a half now. And just two weeks ago we had U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the chat.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah, that was really a coup, to get that kind of recognition, that was amazing.

Zak Malamed: It was. It was exciting to see the kids, the students I should say, engaged in this dialogue with the Secretary of Education, many of them asking very intelligent questions that you don’t really even hear brought up in the “adult conversation” or the “higher up level conversation.” But every event I attend, every conversation I see take place on education that involves students, always is the highlight of every event and always is the most eye-opening. The problem is, there isn’t much action taken from that, it’s just the students expressing their voice and kind of lending a bit of credibility to what the [unclear] is of what the event is trying to achieve. So we really need to authenticate the students’ voice. So, what we did with the success of the Twitter chats is, we formulated at the time a website stuvoice.org, as you mentioned earlier, going off of the hashtag “#StuVoice,” the Twitter chat that we run every Monday at 8:30 p.m. ET. And that website is formulating into a place where we can both showcase the student voice stories, the success stories of students, teachers, parents, etc. all working to make sure that the students have a stronger, more amplified voice in the education policy or education arena, period. And it also serves to connect the story, connecting individuals who are acting on similar initiatives or hope to learn from others who have been more successful or less successful in those initiatives, just through storytelling. And it also showcases the student voices’ opinions; I mean we’ve got thousands of readers every month at the very least and millions of people that we are able to reach on Twitter through these weekly dialogues. I like to call it one of the best free marketing tools there is. But it is not easy to build a platform like that; it’s taken quite a while. But, the website really, really has helped us to really understand the power that Student Voice has and the power that storytelling can have in shaping such an important conversation. And that lead to the creation of Student Voice Live!, the in-person event for this online community it helped to formulate. I worked with about 30 kids from across the country who I never met before, in large part, to create an event in New York City, we had a satellite event in 22 countries across six continents, to really just give students the opportunity to interact with influential stakeholders, even their own teachers, with support of corporations, government entities and so on and so forth, it really felt like the start of a new student voice movement. You haven’t really seen a large, organized movement of students since probably around the Civil Rights Era or at least…

Frank LoMonte: Sure, or Vietnam, I guess.

Zak Malamed: Yes, exactly. And now students have an outlet to organize. And while we may not be organizing on the ground, there are hundreds of student protests every year and documented. We aren’t organizing in the same fashion that they did on the national level, back in the Vietnam, Civil Rights era. But we are organizing in a similar fashion online. And that’s not to be discounted. But to bring that together in person was valuable and led to the formation of our non-profit that now serves, amplifies, aggregates reconnection and also accelerates student voices everywhere. It’s an exciting time.

Frank LoMonte: It’s exciting to see something that started really with no budget, no staff, no nothing. Just literally as a Twitter chat in the imagination of a couple of creative people has taken hold and has turned into an actual organization. Well let me get you to go back over something you mentioned, which was your own high school experience you observed that there were obstacles, barriers that people encountered trying to engage and make themselves heard. Talk a little bit about that. What have you observed are sort of those barriers to entry and how do we address those?

Zak Malamed: Well, in many ways it’s actually a two-way street. And retrospectively I actually say I look at it and I say that students don’t really value their voices as much as they should, as much as others in the community don’t value our voices, we don’t really realize the impact that it could have and the importance of exercising our own voices. Standing up for what we believe in no matter what anyone else may say. Because there’s a reason that we think what we think. And even if we’re not always right, because no one’s always right. It doesn’t mean that our voices don’t have as much value and there isn’t a reason as to why we came to that conclusion or came to have that opinion. And that helps people better conceptualize how to address issues and create change that is much more effective and efficient. So, in recognizing the fact that retrospectively I wish I had, I wish more for certain things, I wish that I did not listen to some administrators who told me to back down from certain things or that some things wouldn’t change. Had I just pushed the students’ voices, maybe one of the most powerful, not maybe, it is the most powerful, I think, organized voice that there could possibly be. If you look at any time that students have actually effectively organized, that gets the most attention out of every other kind of organization on the ground. It’s really mobilized people to act on issues. Any great world changing, social change movement, whatever it is, always young people. You never see a bunch of people who are advocating for change in such a grass roots fashion with all grey hair everywhere, you know that doesn’t happen.

Frank LoMonte: Right.

Zak Malamed: Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter or on the ground, you’ve got a bunch of young high school students, college students, those are the people who are actually the activists advocating for the most radical but also sensible change. Because I think that the best change and the most powerful change is when the students come together with their elders, their educators and their parents and they agree on an issue. It’s the young people that actually see the possibility and the reason for change at first. But when they actually begin to collaborate with the adults in the field and the adults in their lives, that’s when you really get to see that sensible, but yet radical change take place. Looking back on my student government experience, there wasn’t the same adult support from the administrative level to the community level. I think there should be. There wasn’t the same collaboration and it wasn’t putting the student voices first. It was how does the student voice support what we’re doing? And rather than allowing the students to take the lead, it’s the students following what the board of education wants to do, what the administrators want to do. And there are very few examples of anything other than that. I’ll give quickly one example of where students actually do have full voting rights on the board of education, that in Arundel County, Md. and right now there’s actually a bill in the Maryland House or I should say assembly to get rid of the students’ full voting rights. So the only, I believe one of the only, if not the only board of education position in the country which students, a student, has full voting rights is already being attacked after students had fought for that a few decades ago, I think it was back in the 60s. Now it’s being attacked. And that shows that not only do we need to advocate for our rights, we also need to protect our existing rights because there is so much power when we organize and if we actually leverage this social media outlet, these social media outlets that we have, and the connections that we were able to form through that, I truly believe that we’re on to maybe some of the greatest changes our education system has seen in decades if not centuries. And it’s going to be because…

Frank LoMonte: Well, so certainly schools and colleges don’t always make an inviting space for young people to contribute their ideas, but there’s also an issue about motivating, I guess, and organizing young people to kind of get off the couch and engage, right? I mean you happen to be and Nikhil Goyal, an especially well-informed, energetic and engaged people, but do you think that the guy who’s in school, studying to be an engineer, the woman who’s in pre-med school, that they’re hungering to get engaged in policymaking and that they’re looking for an outlet to do that? Or are they just sort of keeping their head down trying to pay their bills and get a good job? And I guess, secondary to that, do you think that that is the job of people like you to actually get those people off the couch or not? Is that a mission, is that a mission that a role an organization like Student Voice can play?

Zak Malamed: I think that actually there is an opening for more of these students to get involved, but if they’re going to be the first to jump at getting involved, I’d be silly to say something like that because, frankly, I have a few roommates actually as engineering students and I don’t even know if they ever put their heads to the pillow. They’re always working and working really, really hard just to put it in an educational context, I’d like to say that from a liberal arts, social science standpoint, if you don’t work outside of the classroom, you’re not going to get a job. If you’re studying the natural sciences, if you don’t study, you’re not going to graduate. So that’s how difficult it is to kind of mobilize the natural science students, the engineering students and so on and so forth. That said, they also, every student is worried about an issue like tuition. Every student is worried about more STEM opportunities on that side of the educational spectrum. And then there’s obviously one of the hottest issues in education today, but from my perspective, if it’s not sexy I’m not interested and that’s the same for all students. The issues need to be sexy. And I don’t think that framing everything from a policy perspective is the best way of making an issue sexy. I think it’s more about making the issue personal and I’ll give you an example at Student Voice that wasn’t just about us getting ahead of unions, the U.S. Department of Education and corporations involved. It was also about bringing in the celebrities that people have watched on television and have admired and are actually acting to create the change that the students desire. Bringing them in into the fold to help motivate some of the students who may not be motivated otherwise. So there are a lot of creative ways that we can start to mobilize students who may not typically be those who would get involved in these issues. Student Voice, I think, in many respects does do that, at least a quarter or half of our staff are computer science majors or engineers or something along those lines. And you wouldn’t expect those to be the ones who are mobilizing. So the way Student Voice, I believe, is approaching it, is more likely to engage the folks who aren’t the social activists, because we’re taking a different approach. It’s not about signing petitions and working on the ground, it’s about making something cool out of this. Getting people opportunities through this movement and also making them realize how they can benefit their own education and their future, so actually exercising their voices. So making that personal is so critical, otherwise, if it’s just about marching in the street and signing petitions, that’s kind of not something that you’re really going to see motivate the entire spectrum of students. That said, when you really bring together the adults and the students and move a movement like this forward, that’s when everyone starts marching in the streets and doing whatever it takes to actually create change. But you’ve got to create a reason for people to get involved and they don’t see that in the student movement right now, they don’t see much of a reason because they aren’t as engaged reading up on all of the issues because, well like I said, they want to graduate first and foremost. But they also want to get the best education possible, too. So making it personal is very critical.

Frank LoMonte: Sure, that’s really smart. And also, I think creating different levels of engagement, right?

Zak Malamed: Exactly.

Frank LoMonte: I mean, not everyone has time, the interest, the motivation to lock arms on the quad and get pepper sprayed. There are people who would be willing to engage at perhaps a less deeply invested level, and those people need that opportunity, too. Maybe it’s just as simple as participating in a Twitter chat, Tweeting a question at a cabinet secretary, something like that. That only takes 30 seconds, but that can be real, genuine engagement.

Zak Malamed: And I actually had a neighbor of mine who had never engaged in the conversation before, but she had seen all that I had been doing over the past couple of years and said, you know, why don’t I just send a Tweet out? And Arne Duncan responded to her Tweet and now she feels a connection to the movement, now she feels like there’s something that she can do to affect change within the education space. Just because Arne Duncan responded to one of her Tweets.

Frank LoMonte: Sure.

Zak Malamed: And those kinds of opportunities that we’re able to create for someone who doesn’t really believe that their voice can create an impact or have an impact is what I think helps to make this movement a bit sexier than I think other movements would be. But let me also clarify, our movement’s completely non-partisan. All we do is advocate for students to actually have a voice and amplify those voices of students who are exercising their voice through our platform because our belief is that every student voice matters, every student voice, they’re saying something for a reason. So whether I’m on the right side of the spectrum, the left side of the spectrum, or in between, their voice has meaning and should be heard and should be a voice of influence in these conversations. So it’s not like we’re advocating for anything that you hear on one side of the spectrum or the other on education policy, it’s about making sure the students who want to stand up and have a voice can have a voice.

Frank LoMonte: Sure, that’s a terrific role to play because that is unique, not to be coming from an ideological perspective, but to be equally welcoming of all perspectives and to just be about the engagement, I think that’s a terrific role for you guys to be playing. Let me ask you to spend a minute and just explain to folks the resource that you have at stuvoice.org, the Digital Backpack, how you want people to use that. We were really pleased at SPLC to be able to contribute some content to that and we were really delighted with how it came out. So, I guess just explain to folks what that resource is and how you hope they’ll use it.

Zak Malamed: Well, likewise Frank, I’m really happy that we could work with SPLC on that. So, we created the Digital Backpack in hopes that it could provide examples, case studies, of how students can have a voice and understanding what student voice can look like. I’m very proud of the outcomes and actually it’s still a developing resource, it’s not something that is just set and stone and it is something that’s just going to evolve over time. We are continuing to develop this resource, this Digital Backpack, of tools for students to look at and say, all right, this is how this student is mobilizing on this issue, this is how I can do it and learn from this in my community. I want to connect with that student because that student’s done something similar to what I want to do. Or, that teacher really provided a great example of how to bring student voices into the classroom. I want to show this to my teacher and see if I can make this a part of my classroom experience. So that’s, generally speaking, what the Digital Backpack is meant to serve. I did have one takeaway, though, one learning experience through that. We tried to show people how they can give students a voice, but we actually have never made the case, and no one has ever made the case, for why students should have a voice. And it’s very difficult to show the how and have people adapt to how and why it’s so important and why it’s so personal to them. So as we developed the how and continue to showcase how student voice can be seen and implemented, it’s also very important, and this is our primary focus, to make the case for why. And so the Digital Backpack will always be a resource for how to actually affect change and actually exercise your voice. And it’s for all teachers, students, that are with all different sections of the Backpack, even parents, to actually look at it and see how they can help amplify, aggregate and accelerate student voices everywhere, but keeping in mind that we all need to be evangelists for why student voice is important. As much as we look at how the why is so critical, no one’s really made that case yet. Although it seems obvious to us that we live in a lower name community of people who really believe in student voice, but that larger majority of people aren’t even thinking about student voice. That’s something we need to change.

Frank LoMonte: Well, just in the minute or two that we have left, what is next for Student Voice? What is next for the organization? And what direction do you envision it evolving in?

Zak Malamed: Sure, so I look at the amplifying, aggregating and accelerating points of what Student Voice is working on. From the amplification standpoint, Twitter and Facebook have been social media platforms that we’ve been able to leverage really well, to organize people and support other student-led initiatives and also connect people in ways that they’ve never been connected before. It’s an incredibly strong community. And the Twitter chats are so great because they bring that community together. And also, spread our voices and our message beyond just the community. So we’re going to continue that, we’re going to build upon that, keep an eye out for leveraging some social media platforms that you might not even see in the social change space right now. But definitely can be leverage for such reasons. So we want to continue to build that amplification platform and that aggregation platform. But beyond just the digital space, we are going around the country over the next couple of months, posting what we call Design Lounge events, where we’ll go to different cities and bring stakeholders together, primarily students of course, but other education stakeholders, to talk about ways that they can actually advocate for why they think student voice is important. Because these conversations are very important. If we don’t start with these conversations, we can’t actually result in action. And these are the conversations that largely hadn’t existed before, at least has not existed in a very long time, so we’re in large part, what Student Voice has been able to do, is create a conversation that hasn’t been around and we’re very proud of that. So we’re going around the country to Austin, Texas and we’ll be on the West Coast soon; we’ll be in New York and D.C., going to various events to help maintain this conversation. And we’ll also be posting Student Voice Live! again in September of 2014, stayed tuned for that. That will be a great event and we’ll continue to build that amplification for Student Voices. And also, in regards to the how, we’re building case studies as to how student voice can be seen, can be implemented. If you’re out there and you feel like you have a great case study or a great example of what student voice looks like, we’d love to help build that case study, help accelerate that case study and also highlight that we at least are trying to connect you with people who desire to really bring student voice to life in their community. So that’s the acceleration stage, really building student-led initiatives, building the student voice presence across the country and the thing is, the infrastructure already exists, we’re just there to support the growth of the existing infrastructure and help to really bring that to a national stage where student voices are a top priority, on the national and even international stage in the education conversation. Because once we’re there, then we’ll really start to see that change and see the local and national organization effect the change that they set out to achieve.

Frank LoMonte: Fantastic, well we need to wrap it up with that, but with one last plug, an invitation for folks on Twitter on Monday evenings to join the Student Voice Twitter chats using the hashtag “#StuVoice.” Do check out the Student Voice website, that’s stuvoice.org. We also hope you’ll check out the resources we have available for you at www.SPLC.org. If you’re a student with any question about your legal rights to gather, publish and share information, give us a call (703) 807-1904 or drop us a line, SPLC@splc.org. Zak Malamed, the founder of Student Voice, thank you so much for joining us, it will be really exciting to see what you and Student Voice do next. Thanks everybody for listening, we’ll talk to you next month.