By Radiah Jamil and Kayla Johnson
A group of Albuquerque teens and young adults have big plans to tackle problems they see in area schools, including a lack of adequate mental health support for students and a school curriculum that does not incorporate enough diversity into assigned readings.
The youth are part of the student-led advocacy group Voices in Action (VIA), formed by Albuquerque Public Schools students in 2015, and now helps students in eight area schools learn about social justice issues and organize campaigns in their own communities. Since discussing students’ mental health, online learning equity and other challenges that affect youth across the city during VIA’s virtual spring gathering in May, the group is now finalizing campaign areas for the upcoming school year.
The group has met several times since the May gathering to prepare a report on the summit, which it plans to present to the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education, superintendent and other stakeholders, and its members plan to pinpoint campaign priorities for the coming school year in July.
The youth who attended the summit highlighted a number of areas they hope to tackle in the next year, such as exploring stronger consequences for students who use racist, homophobic, sexist and xenophobic comments; expanding mental health support for students; and adding more diverse texts to the curriculum.
“There is still so much work to do to hold elected officials accountable to our youth and youth-positive policies, especially within the education system,” said VIA cofounder Janelle Astorga-Ramos. “VIA will continue to organize and work towards changing and resolving these issues.”
VIA teaches youth organizing and advocacy skills, and pushes for changes around issues that affect New Mexico students by collaborating with the Albuquerque Office of Equity and Engagement. The group’s fourth annual summit was co-hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people, as part of a series of events exploring the state of young people across the country.
“We get burnt out by organizing,” Astorga-Ramos said. “It’s hard to really see how organizing does create change, how we might have these little wins when you’re doing anything virtually.”
Other students at the meeting said online organizing during the previous year added to the existing challenges in creating change within New Mexico’s education system. They said pushing for change can be difficult when lawmakers and other authorities do not seriously consider the opinions and suggestions of the youth their policies affect.
“If there is something that is harming us directly, we should be the ones to take charge and push the movement forward in order to be treated fairly,” said recent high school graduate Isaiah Llamas, 18, one of the meeting’s facilitators.
Despite the challenges, the organization’s work did not stop during the COVID-19 pandemic. After surveying hundreds of students, parents, school staff and community members across 21 Albuquerque public schools, the group identified three issues as the most prevalent concerns amid the pandemic: mental health, racial inequity, and WiFi and technology access.
VIA set out to minimize the impact of those issues during the pandemic. For youth with financial limitations, the lack of WiFi and technology suddenly became a larger obstacle when the district switched to remote learning in 2020. VIA helped create more WiFi hotspots and established a partnership with Comcast that provided WiFi for $10 monthly.
And to minimize racial inequity, VIA suggested offering classes in ethnic studies, training in diversity and racism for school teachers and administrators, and using an app where students and families could report racial inequities specific to schools or areas.
A number of summit attendees said they felt Albuquerque youth’s opinions on social, political, economic and cultural issues were often dismissed by adults. Based on her past experience working with authority figures, summit organizer Galicia Monforte, 18, said some adults view youth organizing as a “cute” effort.
However, Evelyn Bonilla, an adult who attended the conference, said she recognizes the importance of incorporating youth at decision-making tables.
“I work in the high schools, but I haven’t been in high school for decades,” Bonilla said. “So how can we really know what students in the high schools need and how to help them if we don’t listen to the high school students?”
Radiah Jamil and Kayla Johnson are high school students in New York City and Philadelphia respectively and contributing writers to the Urban Health Media Project. They worked with UHMP instructor and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Meehan on this article.