Reflections from New Voices student leaders: Maggie LeBeau

Maggie LeBeau (left) and her friend visiting NBC studios in Boston.
Maggie LeBeau (left) and her friend visiting NBC studios in Boston. PHOTO COURTESY: MAGGIE LEBEAU

This past summer, 32 student leaders from 13 states, participated in the Student Press Law Center’s annual New Voices Student Leaders Institute – a free online program for high school students to improve their leadership and organizing skills, develop their role as leaders within the New Voices movement, and identify a strategy that could be instrumental in their state’s New Voices efforts. 

After spending two weeks learning from SPLC team members, special guest speakers and one another, the New Voices student leaders are prepared and ready to put their newfound leadership skills into action in their states.

Photo of Maggie Lebeau

Maggie LeBeau is one of those students. LeBeau is a senior at Glenbard East High School in Illinois where she serves as the Editor-in-Chief at the Echo student newspaper. She shared her experiences at the Institute and what comes next in her advocacy work. 

I first learned about the fight for student journalist’s press freedom rights at a writing camp last summer and it piqued my interest. It’s crazy to me that although journalism is the only profession protected by the U.S. Constitution, students across the country are still being silenced. Because of this, when I stumbled upon the New Voices Student Leaders Institute, I applied, craving to know more. I also don’t have a journalism class at my school, so I take every outside opportunity I can related to the field to know more. 

When I hopped onto the Zoom call on the first day I was pretty scared. I knew nothing about advocacy and didn’t have a personal censorship story. Some students had already met with their state lawmakers and knew legislation inside and out. Even worse, I was the only student from Illinois. My plan was to mute myself for the whole two weeks and just listen to the experienced professionals. 

But that is not what happened. I was forced out of my comfort zone and had to do extensive research about my own state and brainstorm ideas. I wrote an op-ed for the first time, power mapped and created SMART Goals. 

Upon researching press freedom in my state, I learned that although Illinois has a New Voices law in place, it is different than the other states’ laws: It does not give full protection against censorship for student media advisers. This was shocking to me considering that Illinois just recently passed a law prohibiting banning books in libraries and schools. 

I formulated my advocacy plan that I’d later present to the group: build off of this momentum in the state legislature and advocate to improve the state of press freedom in Illinois. I’d recruit other student journalists in my area to build a group of advocates and contact state legislators who originally supported the law in 2016. 

Luckily, I was not totally alone in the planning process. Although I was the only person from Illinois at the Institute, I was placed in a breakout room with three other students who were also the only ones representing their state. Our states all had completely different landscapes of student press freedom, mine having a flawed law and others having none. However, it was comforting to brainstorm with other students who were in the same boat as me. Plus, they all really loved storytelling and were passionate about letting their voices be heard. 

I joined the Institute to learn more about advocacy and came out with more confidence, brainstorming skills, and a community.

– Maggie LeBeau

These students gave me the confidence to present my ideas to the whole group. I felt validated and heard. I was even one of the first volunteers to present my state brainstorming ideas (albeit for a free mug). I ended the presentation with a smile, feeling prideful in the work I had done and excited for what else was to come. 

This feeling of validation grew as the days went on. On the second to last day, we had guest speaker Rainesford Stauffer, author of All The Gold Stars, discuss burnout in students and caring for yourself. It was very interesting hearing about self-care as a writer and when to ask for help. I could relate to this on a deep level since, as Editor-in-Chief of my student newspaper, I often put the entire responsibility of the newsroom on my shoulders and criticize myself for not being good enough. When I told Rainesford about my struggle in the Zoom chat, she explained to me that I am in fact doing enough, especially as a student. This conversation made me feel heard as a student trying to grow the journalism program in my school. 

It can be lonely as a journalist but being around so many students and professionals who share the same passion as me was euphoric. I joined the Institute to learn more about advocacy and came out with more confidence, brainstorming skills and a community. 

Learn more about how you can take action to restore and protect student press freedom in your state.