Natalie Mandel, a rising ninth-grader at Brown School, last year convinced her principal to adopt Meatless Mondays, turning the cafeteria’s menu all vegetarian for the first day of each week.
It wasn’t even that hard: She set up a meeting and made her case, arguing that going meatless on Mondays would be a way to introduce students to eating vegetarian and might save the school some money. A month later, she got her way.
“It was easier than I thought it would be,” she said.
As an eighth-grader at Oneida Middle School two years ago, Leah Russo helped organize a walkout. When high-schoolers across the region and the country walked out to demonstrate against gun violence in schools, she wanted to do the same at her middle school. The young student organizers walked out of class and staged a march in the hallways of the school.
“It was powerful. It showed how influential someone can be,” she said of her middle school experience. “If you have the motivation, you have the power to make people listen if you put your mind to it.”
Russo, who will start her sophomore year at Schenectady High School in September, said she plans to get more involved with the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club, aiming to foster a safe and open place for gay students.
Russo and Mandel joined over 90 others students from around the Capital Region on Monday for the fifth annual Capital Region Institute for Human Rights Teen Summer Symposium. Organized by a trio of area teachers – Thea MacFawn and Kelly Wetherbee, of Shaker High School, and Bill Reilly, of Bethlehem High School – the annual symposium aims to give students a chance to learn the basic tools of social activism and organizing and to meet with students equally interested in making changes at the local and global level.
“It lets them know they can advocate for change … their voices are important,” MacFawn said. “They don’t have to wait until they are 18 to make change.”
Over the three-day conference, hosted at the New York State United Teachers headquarters in Latham, the students will hear from activists – young and old – and meet in small groups to plan projects on issues ranging from racial justice to women’s rights to environmental protection and climate change. The students will learn about organizing rallies, lobbying lawmakers, engaging the media, finding compromise, leveraging political pressure, organizing letter-writing campaigns and phone banks, using social media to network with other activists, and more.
The summer conference has continued to grow since its 2014 inception. This summer over 90 students from 23 different schools registered to participate, up from about 75 students last year. When it started in 2014, just nine schools were represented.
The event has grown through word-of-mouth recommendations and communications with districts across the region. The teacher organizers hope the symposium will continue to grow in the coming years. “I want to get to 200” students, MacFawn said.
Students who participated in past symposiums have converted those lessons in to real action, the organizers said. Some students left the symposium and spent the following school year raising $5,000 to help a non-profit organization purchase land in Uganda to start a farm for local people there. Other students organized a community event in Schenectady to assist a local refugee support group. Many of the students who spearheaded anti-gun walkouts in 2017 got their start at the youth symposium.
“It’s easy to sit and wish you could do something,” Reilly said. “This gives them the mental permission that it’s OK to act, it’s important to act.”
Students like Hamza Noor and Kaelyn DiCocco, an incoming senior and recent graduate at Schalmont High School, respectively, have been speaking out for a few years now. The students have been involved in organizing rallies and events at their school and around the region in recent years. They are working as two of the 11 interns at this week’s student symposium helping to run the event.
When students around the Capital Region organized school walkouts and large rallies as part of a national student movement against gun violence, Noor and DiCocco were on the front lines, helping to organize walkouts at their school and then a regionwide rally in Albany. Noor and DiCocco said they have often reached out to other students they’ve met at the summer conference.
DiCocco on Monday was attending her fourth symposium and credited the event with launching her life as an activist, opening her eyes to the ins and outs of organizing and connecting her to a network of like-minded student across the region.
“It’s definitely harder than you think it’s gonna be,” she said of organizing rallies and protests. “But at the same time, it’s not too difficult for a young person to do. You realize that you do have power.”
DiCocco is headed to American University in Washington, D.C. in the fall, where she hopes to continue her activism. She said she plans on staying engaged in the kind of activism she has done as a high school student for the rest of her life.
Noor, who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in 2011, said he also plans to continue his activism and over time shift into political work as well.
The Schalmont students said they think their generation is diving into activism earlier and more intensely than previous generations, pushing for a broader cultural shift to empower people over corporations and calling for widespread social changes about how Americans think about race, gender, environment and politics.
“The goals we have of making the world a better place, they aren’t that far fetched,” Noor said. “They are tangible.”
Citing climate change and longterm forecasts of decades of calamitous natural disasters, refugee crises and increasingly-strained global energy and food systems, the young activists at Monday’s conference see a world full of problems they must begin addressing now.
“The older people aren’t going to be here in 20 years or 50 years when climate change is killing us,” DiCocco said. “We are the ones that are gonna be here.”