Written by Iman Abdul
Last fall, while sitting next to New York Times reporter and MacArthur Genius, Nikole Hannah-Jones, in an auditorium at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, New York, I made the following statement: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This quote echoes a statement by Desmond Tutu and allowed me, while on a panel about school segregation, to make a point about why youth voice is essential to the conversation around school segregation in New York City.
IntegrateNYC, where I’m the Director of Education & Engagement, is a youth-led organization that advocates for real integration and equity in NYC’s public school system. Each year, we’ve made more and more progress towards our mission. We’ve presented at the United Nations, the US Department of Education, the New York State Board of Regents, we sit on Mayor De Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group, and we also helped to design the District 15 Middle School Integration Plan. From holding rallies in front of City Hall and Tweed Courthouse to hosting a monthly Youth Council that brings together hundreds of students from across the City, we’ve proven that youth voice is essential to making good policy.
In February, the School Diversity Advisory Group released a comprehensive plan for approaching integration at 99% of New York City schools. This plan was designed using IntegrateNYC’s Five R’s of Real Integration, a testament to elevating youth voices. Unfortunately, the Mayor and Chancellor have yet to respond to the plan.
In 1954, the Supreme Court, through their Brown v Board of Education decision, held that ”separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal,” and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 2018, we student-leaders at IntegrateNYC acknowledged—through our campaign in response to the current segregation we experience in our daily school lives—that separate is #STILLnotEqual. This year marks 65 years since the Brown v. Board decision. We student-leaders continue to challenge the remaining existence of segregation in our schools. For many in the USA, 65 is the age at which people are eligible to retire, and we believe it is time to #RetireSegregation.
When we call to #RetireSegregation, we are focused on the schools that serve most of New York City’s students. In recent months, conversations about integration in New York City have overwhelmingly centered on only eight so-called “specialized” high schools, which serve an embarrassingly low number of Black and Latinx students. Just this year, out of 895 seats, Stuyvesant High School admitted seven black students out of the 5500 Black students that took the Specialized High School Admissions Test. While we support efforts to address the lack of representation in these schools, we must not forget about all other public schools in New York City that enroll the vast majority of students and perpetuate segregation. Over the past five years, we at IntegrateNYC have advocated for integration for the 99% of public high schools.
New York City Department Of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza has spoken passionately about challenging school segregation and the power of youth voice in helping achieve Real Integration since beginning his tenure. He attended and taught in segregated public schools in his home state, Arizona. He’s experienced intense educational disparities and knows first-hand that the problem truly exists. Along with many other adult allies, he has prioritized youth voices in this debate.
However, in a society where youth voice and presence is often tokenized, ignored, or silenced, students aren’t taken seriously and are often perceived as of lesser value to society. What’s often not acknowledged is how essential and powerful youth voice and presence is to society and tackling its many injustices. Young people are directly impacted by segregation and should be leading the movement to achieve real integration in our city’s schools.
Segregation affects us, our siblings, younger loved ones, and future generations. We will never be successful in achieving real integration or any progressive policies if adults are unwilling to create space for the empowerment and leadership of young people.
As an adult ally of mine once wrote, “Adults bring our trauma, pessimism, and ideologies that in many ways have been compromised by the many ‘ism’s’ in our society.” Adults aren’t impacted by school segregation in ways that students are, and that’s why youth and adults must come together to build an intergenerational movement that elevates and cultivates youth voices with support from adult allies.
Youth have not yet been compromised by systems of oppression. This is seen in the work being done by groups such as IntegrateNYC, Urban Youth Collaborative, Girls for Gender Equity, and many more that are leading the charge for educational equity in NYC.
On May 17th, 2019, the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we the students demand we #RetireSegregation. Youth leaders across our city and even the country will organize for what we hope to be the largest retirement party of our time! Be sure to look out for our Newsies in your borough handing out the latest information you need to #RetireSegregation. Join us in committing to #RetireSegregation in New York City, once and for all.
Iman Abdul is Director of Education and Engagement for IntegrateNYC. She is a New York City public school graduate and is currently studying education at the City College of New York.