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Want to Change the Education System? Listen to Students

"If you had the power to change the education system, what would you do?"

This is my favorite question to ask the students I mentor in Los Angeles. Their responses are wonderfully imaginative, ranging from broader curriculum to outdoor classrooms. However, when I ask them what stops them from fighting for those changes, the answers have a similar ring. "I feel alone." "No one listens to students." "I don't even know where to begin!"

As much as it saddens me to hear this, I understand where they're coming from. In recent years, a riveting national conversation about the state of our education system and the reforms it needs has been sparked. Unfortunately, these conversations are often dominated by those furthest from the classroom, and ironically, almost completely absent from these debates are the voices of those who are most affected by the issues in question: students.

For example, last fall Students First's Michelle Rhee hosted a Teacher Town Hall event in Los Angeles, in an attempt to provide a space where community voice about various education reform issues could emerge. In actuality, the event has highly policed; no student voice and very little teacher voice was permitted. I spoke out at the end to bring light to the fact that these education reformers have not taken the time to consider the voices of those closest to the school and its community.

As a result, the so-called "reforms" that have emerged from these conversations have done very little to help students, and have actually left even more of them behind than ever. In the face of all this, how could a student even begin to feel like their voice is important? How could they not feel alone?

Students all over the United States, from Portland to Chicago to Providence, are tired of feeling powerless when it comes to decisions that affect their education. They are the future of this country and their voices should be the ones leading the national conversation on education.

That's why they've begun to organize together, forming student unions and fighting back against threats to their education, such as budget cuts, high stakes testing, and school closings. From mass walkouts and sit-ins to creative street theatre and flash mobs, these students are demanding that their voices be heard.

Over the past year, I have had the tremendous opportunity to learn from and work with some of these awe-inspiring student organizers. Hearing the stories of students—like Israel Munoz, who marched last year with student organizers from the Chicago Students Union to protest school closings—has helped me realize that I am not alone and that elevating student voice is not an impossible goal. It’s also given me a great idea. What if I could share the hope I felt with the students in Los Angeles? What if they got the opportunity to learn from these student organizers and work with them to build a movement in Los Angeles?

To that end, on Saturday, March 29, 2014 at the University of Southern California, youth from all over Los Angeles will participate in EmpowerED: Los Angeles Student Power 2014, a youth conference that will provide an inviting and invigorating space for students to raise their voices on important educational issues and collaborate on building a national student power movement. EmpowerED 2014 will be the first event ever to engage a student community in a conversation about their education. It is truly a conference designed for students by students.

The conversation will be initiated by a handpicked team of student leaders from Chicago, Newark, Portland, Providence, and Baltimore, who will share incredible stories of how they have elevated student voice and made history in their communities. The students in attendance will then have the chance to work with the student organizers in workshops to build organizing skills, share their ideas for education, and collaborate on developing a student power movement in Los Angeles.

In one portion of the conference, following a series of Imagining Learning's Listening Sessions, students will have the unique opportunity to generate artwork that portrays their vision for student voice in education. This artwork will be displayed in an exhibit called "Collective Voice: The Wisdom of Young People on Education" in Washington DC and in a book with the same title, which will all be presented to political, social, education, and cultural leaders at a national educational conference in 2015.

I am truly excited to see what will unfold for the student power movement at the conference. My goal is that by the end of the day, students will no longer feel alone or silenced when it comes to fighting for their education. I know that EmpowerED 2014 is simply the starting point to a larger movement for student power that will continue beyond the conference and an education system that will value student voice.

All high school students in the Los Angeles area are invited to attend the event and can register here. And, if you want to support student voice and organizing, and help cover the travel costs for the high school student organizers who will be speaking at the event, please consider making a donation.

Educational justice will not be achieved by top-down approaches that deliberately silence the voices of those at the bottom. It will not be achieved by policies that exclude, divide, or oppress. It will be achieved by liberating the students who live this everyday reality and elevating their voices in the educational policy process.

We must be led by the perspectives of those we aim to serve. This is how we believe in youth. This is how we give students true choice and liberation. This is how we give them a great education.

Hannah Nguyen is a student at the University of Southern California and the national co-organizer for Students United for Public Education (SUPE). She is the executive director for the EmpowerED: Los Angeles Student Power 2014 conference, which is co-hosted by USC Program Board, Academic Culture Assembly, and SUPE. Any questions? Email her at

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