by Angela RomansEditor’s note: Before Saturday’s historic day of protest in women’s marches and rallies around the world, Providence youth activists organized a student walk-out on Inauguration Day. AISR is proud of our local youth for standing up for what they believe in; for more on the importance of honoring youth voices, see interviews with teacher activist José Luis Vilson and Providence youth activists in our special post-election issue of VUE.
I spent the hours before and after 12 pm on January 20, 2017 in Providence supporting a student-led march and rally to protest the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States. To say that the event felt like a ray of sunshine in the midst of a dark day is a profound understatement.
The event “Against Trump. For Students. By Students” was led by youth organizers across Providence who have been troubled by the results of an election in which they had no voice and worried about the potential policy consequences for their educations and their futures. The students were supported by two local nonprofit youth organizations, the Providence Student Union and Youth in Action. At an organizing meeting the weekend before, adult allies asked the youth planning the walkout what kind of support they needed. The brave students said, “We want you standing outside our schools, because we’re scared, and most of us have never participated in an action like this, but to walk out and see you all standing there supporting us, it’ll let us know we’re doing the right thing.” So along with dozens of adults across the city, I stood outside one of our local high schools with an orange armband to identify myself as an ally – another idea from student organizers – to meet and encourage the group of students leaving to walk to the Rhode Island State House.
Many adults condemned the planned walk-out in op-eds, social media, and personal conversations. The superintendent of the Providence Public Schools asked students not to walk out but made it clear that the consequences of their actions would be an unexcused absence, the same consequence for students “skipping” school for any other reason. Critics charged that students should protest after school, “on their own time” instead of “when they are supposed to be learning.” As a former public high school teacher, I am absolutely certain that nothing students were learning in their classrooms during those two hours was as important as this moment, in which students spoke of resisting this administration’s policies as a life-or-death matter for themselves, their friends, and their families. And as my AISR colleague Keith Catone reflected, this was a moment for the youth not just to learn about real life, but to teach us adults.
And teach they did. We received clear instructions as allies: “Recognize that this is NOT an adult agenda. Your attention should be directed to keeping youth safe.” Student speakers reminded us, “The human response to oppression is and always will be organizing,” and “Together we can do so much.” The Providence Student Union will soon be launching a Student Bill of Rights Campaign to demand the educational conditions that youth deserve, with a list of 25 rights, from fixing crumbling school buildings to ending the school to prison pipeline. “No more,” they said, “will decisions about our futures be made for us without us.” The energy and inspiring power of the crowd made me proud of the young people and humbled to be able to support them and bear witness to their courage, strength, intellect, and beauty.
One student speaker asked a question that resonates in my heart and mind: “Will elected officials stand up for our youth?” Given the racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic rhetoric of the past election cycle, and a nominee for Secretary of Education whose record supports the gutting of public education, I have little faith that this administration will. But I do have faith in the young people in Providence to stand up for themselves, and know that I and many other adult allies will be standing beside them.
Angela Romans is the co-director of District & Systems Transformation at AISR.