student activism

Five Chicago student activists on why they will be in your face this summer

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

Trevon Bosley’s brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. Shot from the street while helping a friend with drums in 2006, he was just one of the 471 people killed by gun violence that year in Chicago.

Through a peer youth council at St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham, Bosley, 20, became an outspoken student activist, and tonight he will join hundreds of students converging for an annual peace march that starts at the church. Chicago’s tradition of youth activism will be on full display, but the local students are getting a high-powered boost. Joining them are Chicago musicians Chance the Rapper and Jennifer Hudson and former Arizona House Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 at a public meeting with constituents. There will also be another set of special guests: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., where a February shooter killed 17 students and teachers.

All week long, local student activists have been rallying and some Parkland students have lended an assist. Several staged a sit-in in City Hall on Monday to protest the proposed construction of a $95 million police academy on the West side and call for an elected school board. Others staged a die-in on in front of Trump Tower on Tuesday to commemorate the second anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Chalkbeat sat down with five Chicago student activists to hear why they take action and what they hope to achieve.


"Gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore 24/7."Alycia Moaton

East Woodlawn resident Alycia Moaton, 17, attends Kenwood Academy. She’s part of Good Kids Mad City, a new advocacy organization formed by Chicago and Baltimore students. This past Monday, Good Kids Mad City members were central figures in the City Hall sit-in this past Monday.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alycia Moaton
Alycia Moaton outside City Hall earlier this week

On becoming an activist: I grew up in Oak Park for about 10 years of my life. Then I moved into Chicago. Going to public schools on the South Side, it was like a completely different world. A lot of the students—their first thought is whether or not they’ll be able to go to school that day because they’re worrying about getting shot on the way there. When I got to experience both sides, experience what it’s like to not fear going to school, I could see just how messed up it is.

Starting off around three years ago, I went to a lot of protests and youth summits, and that turned me into wanting to be part of an organization. That’s how I got in touch with Good Kids Mad City. Good Kids Mad City came to be after the Parkland shooting, from the idea that gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore, 24/7, and it’s as national as a mass shooting.

What she hopes to achieve: One of my main goals is that [the rally tonight] gets a lot of national coverage. The Parkland students are allowing us to make the narrative about Chicago. I hope people leave with the idea of not treating gun violence as just a local issue, with the idea that this isn’t normal. This shouldn’t be viewed as “Oh, this is just how Chicago is, Chicago is just a violent city.”

The big goal is to have people change their narrative about what gun violence in Chicago is, that it has to be taken way more seriously than just a local issue.


"When people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders."Diego Garcia

Brighton Park resident Diego Garcia, 16, led 50 local teenagers to the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. in March. Earlier this week, he participated in the die-in outside Trump Tower. He is also a member of Chicago Strong, the citywide youth group organizing tonight’s rally.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

On becoming an activist: The parents in my community are immigrants, and so are my teachers and my friends. After Trump became president, they felt like, if they speak up for what they believe in, they’re putting themselves in danger of being targeted by the government.

I decided that if I really had nothing to lose, then I would be the voice for them. I’m a citizen of the U.S., and just being a citizen, I have many rights that a lot of other people feel like they don’t have—the right to voice my opinion, to vote about my future.

After the Parkland shooting, my priest said that he would support me in taking 15 teenagers to Washington, D.C., for March for Our Lives. It was one of the best times that I’ve had in my life, because not only were my peers standing up for what they believe in, but also I knew that I wasn’t alone. There was, visually, all around you, people who cared about you.

What he hopes to achieve: I hope that, after the rally, people realize that we young people in Chicago, we want something to change. A lot of the adults like normalizing the violence. The 14-year-old that got shot, or the adult that was going to the store and got shot for no good reason—no one talks about these small things because it happens so often.

I hope that people’s perspective of Chicago changes, because when people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders.


"It takes everybody. We need people from every region to contribute so we can get total change."Alex King

Austin resident Alex King, 17, just graduated from North Lawndale College Prep. At North Lawndale, he was a Peace Warrior, a youth ambassador for violence prevention. After the Parkland shooting, he traveled to Parkland to visit student survivors. Alex is also part of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alex King
Alex King on a radio interview

On becoming an activist: It started with me wanting a shirt. At North Lawndale College Prep, we have to wear these button-up shirts with collars, and it’s hot. One Thursday, I was seeing these different shirts, regular long-sleeve shirts. It had “Peace Warriors” going down the sleeve, a peace sign on the back, and I was like, “I want one of those.” Then I also heard that Peace Warriors get pulled out of class sometimes, and I’m like “Yeah, if we can get out of class, for sure!”

After joining Peace Warriors, it got to a point where I felt that family connection—these were some of the people I went to when I couldn’t even go to my own family. I’ve been shot at multiple times and I didn’t go to my family, because I didn’t want to put that burden on their shoulders. I went to the Peace Warriors because I knew some of them experienced the same thing, and it’s also easier to connect with people in your age range.

My nephew was shot and killed on May 28, 2017. Shot twice: once in the back of the head and once in the back. I feel like I would have done something that would have put me in a way worse spot than I’m in now if I didn’t have Peace Warriors. They came to me every day, and were like “We are here for you no matter what.” I was known as the one with all the energy. When those people saw me down, they told me,”‘You were always the one to cheer everybody up, so we have to be here for you, to get you back like that.”

What he hopes to achieve: I want people to walk away [tonight] and believe that change can happen. We might be different in a lot of ways, but we are alike in more ways than we are different. I want people to see the fact that we can’t be independent, if we want to make change across the world, we all have to come together to make this work.

We can’t try change the world with only Chicago, we can’t try to change the world with only Florida. It takes everybody. We need people from every region to put their input on so we can get total change.


"Be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something."Trevon Bosley

Roseland native Trevon Bosley is a rising junior at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He joined Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere, or B.R.A.V.E., a peer youth council run through the St. Sabina youth program, in 2010. He is also a member of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Trevon Bosley
Trevon Bosley at March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. earlier this year

On becoming an activist: On April 4, 2006, my brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. He was outside helping a friend with drums. Someone fired shots at them and he was shot in the shoulder. After that, my parents got in contact with (the Rev.) Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina, and he introduced me to B.R.A.V.E.

The main things that the older B.R.A.V.E. members told me was to be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something. They told me to just be effective when you’re planning and strategizing your movement.

A while back [around three years ago], we did a voter registration campaign. The strategic thing was how we planned to tackle violence. We know that we have a lot of gun violence in Chicago, but we have to understand why. We noticed that the elected officials at the time weren’t allocating resources to anti-violence initiatives, and the only way you can get politicians to listen to you is to vote. We identified what the problem was and how to go about addressing it.

What he hopes to achieve: We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve been fighting for change in the community for a very long time. Tonight’s rally is going to be bigger because of the Parkland influence. We’ve been fighting in Chicago for a very long time for peace, but only recently has the national media really wanted to cover our everyday shootings. The Parkland influence is giving us the platform, it’s led to our voices finally being heard about everyday shootings.


"I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories because they always twist it around, and then you’re like: That’s not me."RieOnna Holmon

RieOnna Holmon, 15, attends Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in Rosewood, and she lives in Woodlawn. She joined B.R.A.V.E in 2017, where she received mentorship from older members such as Trevon. Most recently, RieOnna became the president of B.R.A.V.E.

PHOTO: Courtesy of RieOnna Holman
RieOnna Holman speaking at St. Sabina in March

On becoming an activist: I joined B.R.A.V.E. last summer when I did an internship at the ARK of St. Sabina. I just started going to the meetings and taking part in all of the rallies. I see myself in these children [that I mentor], how I was naïve and didn’t really know anything. Being able to teach them about what is really happening out there really shows me that the youth need to be educated about what’s going on.

What she hopes to achieve: [Tonight,] I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories for them because they always twist it around and you’re always like, “That’s not me.”

It happens a lot. People will talk about someone they lost, and [media outlets] will turn it around being like, this “x” gang member. But we didn’t tell you that. I know now that I have to actually get out there and tell it for myself, because otherwise what’s out there could not be true or another side of the story.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect that Diego Garcia led 50 teenagers to the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. in March, not 15 teenagers.

to the races

Jia Lee, a special education teacher and union gadfly, wants to be New York’s next Lt. Gov.

Earth School teacher Jia Lee is running for New York lt. governor. An advocate against high-stakes testing, she spoke about the issue in 2015 before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

With 18 years in the classroom, special education teacher Jia Lee has seen a lot of change. Now, she wants to be the one who makes it.

Lee is running for lt. governor on the Green Party ticket, facing off against the incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul and GOP hopeful Julie Killian in the November general election.

Even during an election cycle that has propelled underdog candidates closer to office, Lee knows her odds of victory are long. But that hasn’t stopped her before. In 2016, Lee challenged United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in a bid for the union’s top post. She lost but managed to garner more than 20 percent of the vote as part of the MORE caucus — an opposition party that calls itself the Movement of Rank and File Educators and champions pocketbook issues such as pay, but also social justice causes.  

When she’s not teaching fourth and fifth grades at Earth School in the East Village, campaigning, or agitating within the union, Lee is active in the opt-out movement that protests high-stakes standardized tests — an issue that she once testified about before Congress.

Lee joins a wave of teachers across the country who have taken their classroom frustrations to the campaign trail in states far less blue than New York, such as Oklahoma and Arizona. Closer to home, the 2016 teacher of the year could be heading to Congress. Here’s what Lee thinks is driving their activism and what she’d like to change in education policy in New York.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running for Lt. Gov.?

I’m running — and with the Green party specifically — because I feel as though policies in education have been largely driven by corporate reformers, who have direct ties with the Democratic party. I see it as incredibly problematic when you have this private/public kind of partnership, especially in government, where money or for-profits are driving decisions in our state. And the Green party is completely untethered to any of that.

I’m realistic about the power of the Green party because of the way our electoral process works in New York state. I believe I’m part of building a more grassroots, bottom-up movement that’s not just talking about the issues that are problematic but highlighting the root causes of it — and that’s the system and the rules that were designed by people in power. So it makes it very difficult for regular people, working people to engage in the system.

How would education policy change if you’re elected?

Currently the way decisions are made, it’s a pyramid structure. It’s very top-down, and my idea is to kind of invert that pyramid and create structures so there’s greater voice coming up from the bottom. How else are you going to know what policies need to be put in place if we don’t know what the needs are really?

Let’s say there’s an education gap or an opportunity gap happening. The analysis — over why that problem is — is in large part determined by people in power. So their solutions have always been to create consequences and rewards like the teacher evaluation system and the accountability system around high-stakes testing. It’s this really test-and-punish system. But if you go to any school that’s struggling, you’ll find that a lot of the answers and problem-solving can come from the actual community.

That sounds hard to do at scale. What kinds of systemic or structural changes could be implemented to make that a reality?

One, we have mayoral control, and that wasn’t always the case in New York City. The largest five school districts in New York State, if you look at them, a lot of them have either centralized control where the elected school boards have been dissolved, democratic spaces were dissolved. It’s a pattern across the country, where centralized control takes hold, and then you have less voice coming up from people.

And then I do believe that our locally elected officials — senators, assembly members —  they’re also taking big contributions from education reform groups, charters. And that, in large part, incentivizes the decisions that happen at the local level. We have to push forward rules about campaign finance, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that has to change — the culture of our governing system.

What do you hope to accomplish with your candidacy, even if you don’t win?

I’m definitely very clear about the odds. But at the same time, I’m very hopeful about this process and this work. This candidacy is about really highlighting the process for a lot of people who maybe even never knew who our current lt. governor was, and now they know. That position has, in large part, been kind of invisible in our state, and maybe we’ve brought that to light. We’re electing people into positions of power in our state, and we’re starting to question them, developing ideas around what needs to change in order for a greater number of people to feel like they had a say, and not feeling like they have to compromise one way or another.

Another big push for me in this campaign is to highlight our issues. The root cause of poverty or all these societal ills is the income gap. It’s not about, ‘Oh, you must have worked harder.’ Or, ‘You must deserve your incredible wealth because of who you are.’ No. Everyone deserves to have basic quality of life.

We’re in a moment of great teacher activism across the country. What do teachers want? What is driving this?

Over the last decade, we’ve seen policies that strip our school budgets — so that places a greater burden on teachers. We actually spend a lot of our own personal money — people sometimes don’t realize how much — just to provide basic things like paper, pencils. And in some dire situations — I’ve actually been in this place — we’re actually buying clothes for students or toiletry items. I’ve had friends in New York City whose custodians have said that budgets have been slashed so much that they can only buy a certain number of garbage bags or paper towels for the bathroom. So teachers now in some schools put toilet paper on the supply lists and even purchase it themselves. That’s one phase of it.

And then another one is this incredible, ridiculous accountability system put in place while these budget cuts are happening —  asking teachers and students and administrators to jump really, really high — without any resources.

Teachers tend to be nurturers and people who sacrifice a lot. I’ve seen tons of stories in the media about the kinds of things teachers do above and beyond. It just shouldn’t be that way. The burden being placed on teachers is untenable.

What do you see as the value of unions? What do you see as reasonable criticisms of them?

Without unions, working people on the whole, we’ll have no space to collectively organize around working conditions. For us as educators, that has a direct impact on our students’ learning conditions. It’s a ripple effect. It affects our communities. Without our unions, we’re not able to protect and support our communities — let alone our own livelihoods.

I believe that our union needs greater internal democracy, that negotiations with the government — with the city or at the larger level — needs to have greater transparency and input from its constituents. Process matters within our union.

So far UFT membership has remained strong in the wake of the Janus Supreme Court decision, which banned mandatory union dues. How do you think the decision will play out here moving forward?

Being actively engaged in your union is like a gym membership. It’s only as powerful as how engaged members are in the process. So while we might have the roster — a lot of people [who] stayed on as union members — how much do they really feel engaged in decision-making at the policy level?

Collecting dues makes it so that our union leadership can have the finances to continue to operate in the way that they have and not to incentivize them to really listen to members. I’m concerned that unless there is greater engagement, nothing is really going to change, and it’s like death by a thousand cuts in our state. It’s not as visible as in red states, where they’ve had these huge cuts that impacted everyone, and everyone came around to the same conclusion that they had to fight for just their basic rights. Whereas here, it’s very nuanced. So it’s a slow death, I would say, at the rate that we’re going.

How has teaching prepared you for the campaign trail? Have you taken any campaign lessons into the classroom?

I have to say, being part of a school community that’s very collaborative and also being able to foster discussion practices with my students and teaching them how to have debates, be able to present their ideas —  in those very concrete ways, it’s prepared me for this. I feel like a lot of teachers could do this. It’s just the work of teaching takes up a lot of our time and energy and passion.

New York City’s elite specialized high schools enroll very few black and Hispanic students. Critics trace the segregation back to the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which currently serves as the sole admissions criteria. What do you think of  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to scrap the exam?

I have very strong feelings that the SHSAT is a gatekeeper. The fact that we as a city can say there are elite schools for a few, and that everyone else is stuck with mediocre or less-than schools, is to me completely wrong. We should, as a city, be able to say that all of our schools provide the kind of education that we want our kids to have. If there is such a high demand for a specialized high school that has specific kinds of programming, then we need to find ways to provide more of them — even in each borough or each community if necessary. We’re creating a resource that seems to be very scarce, and in education, why are we doing that?

Reinventing school

What’s next for the Laurene Powell Jobs-funded effort to rethink American high schools

Tom Hanks and James Corden during XQ's TV special, "Super School Live."

A star-studded television special broadcast on major networks last year had a simple message: high schools haven’t changed in 100 years, but they need to — and fast.

It was backed by the nonprofit XQ Institute, which has awarded $130 million to 19 schools trying new approaches, like using virtual reality or creating a school within a museum. As those schools get off the ground, XQ has begun to deploy another strategy: trying to influence local policy.

Last week, XQ published a report encouraging state leaders to push for innovation on their own, including a set of recommendations for things like graduation requirements, teacher training, and innovation funds. Another guide, this one focused on convincing school board members to prioritize high school reform, is on the way.

It’s a notable new tack for the organization, which is affiliated with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. (Chalkbeat is funded by the Emerson Collective through the Silicon Valley Community Fund.) And it’s one with a reasonable shot at influencing policy, thanks both to XQ’s generous funding and to the fact that innovation appeals to education advocates of many stripes.

But XQ is also sure to face familiar challenges in realizing its goal of dramatically reshaping schools: convincing policymakers that their strategy is the right one and addressing foundational issues like school funding that can stand in the way.

“Typically what systems do is they exempt innovative schools from the traditional policies and practices of the district, but all that guarantees is that they’ll remain a minority among a majority of traditional schools,” said Warren Simmons, who was involved in the Annenberg Challenge, a philanthropic effort to improve schools in the 1990s.

19 schools, broader ambitions

A few of XQ’s schools opened their doors for the first time this year, including Crosstown High in Memphis, which promises to have students focus their learning on projects. Schools like that, XQ argues, will help students get ready for a changing world.

“To prepare for the future of work, we need to set a clear agenda to prepare the future workforce — and that agenda ties directly to our schools,” Russlynn Ali, the XQ CEO and a former Obama administration official, wrote in the report’s introduction.

To address this, XQ recommends several policies. One is to “communicate the urgency” of overhauling the high school experience. Others are more specific, such as having states offer competitive grants to spur school innovation, as XQ did, and provide additional autonomy to district schools, as has been done in Colorado.

XQ also wants more students to progress through classes based on measurements of their skills, not a set number of semesters or “seat time.” It’s an approach that has a lot of overlap with technology-based “personalized learning,” which is backed by other major funders including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (CZI is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

Meanwhile, XQ suggests states require that the courses necessary for earning a high school degree mirror those required to apply to a state public university system.

Together, the policies are meant to make high school more engaging and prepare students more directly for college and work.

The initiative’s ideas have garnered support from ideologically diverse sources. The Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education hosted a summit late last year that featured some of the same schools that won XQ grants and also called for leaders to rethink schools. (DeVos’s schedule indicates that she met with Ali and Powell Jobs in July 2017.)

An image from XQ’s recent report.

XQ itself has also drawn praise from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “America’s students need their high schools to be places where everyone can gain the skills they need to be ready for college, apprenticeships or other career paths — and for the rest of their lives,” she said in a statement. “The XQ report is a thorough blueprint for how states and school districts can help public schools achieve this.” (A spokesperson for AFT did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether the union has received funding from XQ or Emerson.)

Carmel Martin, a managing director at the Emerson Collective and an author of the XQ report, said that the organization sent the report to governors and she recently spoke to education staffers at the National Governors Association conference.

“We’re sharing [our research and experiences] with policymakers across the political spectrum,” she said. “We stand ready to help them move forward with these policy recommendations.”

The organization has also published a number of resources, including online guides to the science of learning and student engagement, as well as kits for people interested in running for local school boards. XQ says it provides ongoing support to the schools it’s funding, including through a five-day seminar this summer.

In addition to the $130 million those 19 schools have been pledged, a 2016 tax form shows XQ spent over $38 million building public awareness of its work that year, including a nationwide bus tour. (XQ says the tour hit 66 cities and included 68 student roundtables.) It spent an additional $5 million to run the award competition. The organization declined to offer additional spending figures.

If you build it, will they come (and will it work)?

Will it all be enough to spur action, and if so, how successful will those changes be?

That depends on several factors, including whether XQ can convince policymakers that reforming high schools is the right way to prepare for the “future of work.” That idea, that the economy is rapidly changing while schools have lagged behind, is the centerpiece of its latest pitch to state leaders. (As Chalkbeat has reported, there’s mixed evidence on just how fast the economy is changing and the claim that schools haven’t changed in 100 years.)

Those policymakers will also have to contend with the fact that a number of those policies have been tried elsewhere and faced setbacks.

In 2012, for instance, Maine passed a law creating a competency-based high school diploma. Students were to graduate based on whether they demonstrated proficiency in given areas, not based on how many classes they passed. It’s the sort of approach XQ says it favors, but earlier this year, Maine repealed the model before it was ever fully implemented. “I think this program is just set up with every opportunity in the world to put in the minimal amount of work,” one parent said.

Other XQ policies, like expanding career and technical education, have a longer track record and solid research base. Some, like improving teacher preparation and their ongoing training, have widespread support, though educators have long wrestled over how best to do it.

Another question is whether XQ will be able to use their 19 schools as proof points. XQ says it is already seeing results, pointing to D.C.’s Washington Leadership Academy, a charter school that won an XQ grant. That school has expanded the number of city students, particularly black students, taking computer science, XQ said, and posted strong test scores.

Michele Cahill, XQ’s managing director of education, said the schools would be judged in a variety of ways, including a suite of SAT tests that all of the schools have agreed to take. XQ is also working on guides for evaluating its schools in partnership with the external research group CREDO, and says it will publicly report on those results in the future.

Simmons said one challenge of the approach is that simply creating a handful of successful schools doesn’t mean their approaches will catch on. “That viral theory of action has failed time and time again,” he said.

And Megan Tompkins-Stange, a professor who studies education philanthropy at the University of Michigan, noted the challenge of expanding on success. “It’s very difficult to scale up local innovation with quality and consistency across a very large number of sites,” she said.

Cahill of XQ said creating a movement won’t be easy, but it can be done, in part through inspiring people.

“We believe broad change of this magnitude requires a cultural shift, [so] we’ve made it a part of our wheelhouse, investing our time, attention and resources not just in creating proof points at the school, district and state levels but also in the effort to win hearts and minds,” she said.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said past efforts similar to XQ’s have been “remarkably unsuccessful.”

But, Hess said, “The fact that it’s historically been incredibly hard to do in a sustainable way doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”