By Barry Paddock
“Lazy” is how 13-year-old Adolfo Abreu, the only child of a single mother in the northwest Bronx, describes himself, at least before he got involved in fighting for student rights.
“I was a kid who never cared about anything,” he admitted. “I slacked off.”
“Shy” is how 16-year-old Tenelle Pierce, raised since she was 10 months old by her grandmother in Bedford-Stuyvesant and now looking forward to her incarcerated mother’s scheduled release next year, describes herself. “I saw what was going on in the world,” she said, “but I didn’t talk about it.”
What could bring these two teenagers from opposite corners of the city together onstage in Greenwich Village one recent Saturday to present a Student Bill of Rights to an audience of hundreds of students from more than 50 city public schools? In 2004 several New York neighborhood-based advocacy groups formed a coalition they named the Urban Youth Collaborative to try and effect change on a citywide level. U.Y.C. secured funding from philanthropic foundations, including the Donors’ Education Collaborative (a group of New York City-based funders interested in school reform), The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
U.Y.C. now has a full-time coordinator and pays for each of its four core member organizations to pay a staffer to serve as a liaison between the member organizations’ local struggles and U.Y.C.’s broader agenda for change. Other neighborhoods and schools have input into U.Y.C. through monthly Student Union meetings that draw up to 75 students from around the city and continue to grow.
Last November U.Y.C. attracted more than 800 teenagers to a student convention where Michele Cahill, the New York City Department of Education’s senior counselor for education policy, pledged to work with U.Y.C. in improving college prep resources in all of the coalition’s affiliated schools. In May of this year, U.Y.C. youth protestors delivered to D.O.E. more than 7,500 postcards, gathered from fellow students, denouncing metal detectors and armed police officers in schools.
Over the past weeks, U.Y.C. developed a Student Bill of Rights through a painstaking process of input from affiliated organizations and Student Union attendees. The result is a bill that dozens of students citywide feel ownership of and are committed to fighting for. The bill’s 10 points include demands for cultural diversity in the curriculum, college prep availability regardless of a student’s grade-point average, smaller classes, up-to-date facilities and technology, school safety without harassment from security agents and transparency in school governance, including a meaningful student role in decision-making.
U.Y.C.-affiliated groups did further outreach to neighborhood schools, collecting hundreds of pledge cards from students committed to attending the Nov. 18 student-rights convention, at which Adolfo Abreu and Tenelle Pierce were among the speakers. On the morning of the event each local organization served breakfast to students, then bussed them to the convention, held at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, to hear the finalized Bill of Rights make its public debut. D.O.E. sent one of its highest-ranking officials, Dr. Andres Alonso, deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, who gave an approving speech, though without explicitly endorsing all of the students’ points.
U.Y.C.’s most involved youth leaders, having spent months immersed in discussion and debate of education issues, eagerly articulated their analysis to the convention’s audience of hundreds of fellow students.
“Why is it,” Rakeeb Alam, a 17-year-old youth leader from Jamaica, Queens, asked the crowd, “that schools that are predominantly for students of color tend to be the least funded and most overcrowded?” The deafening noise from the crowd rivaled any Jay-Z concert or Knicks game. “How can you feel your school is safe,” Alam continued, now sputtering with outrage, “when armed cops are patrolling hallways, harassing and intimidating students?”
Formerly lazy Adolfo Abreu’s role at the Judson convention was to alternate with several other student leaders in reading aloud from the stage each point of the Bill of Rights. Abreu, who attends Middle School 45 in the Bronx, a year ago found himself struggling with math. A cousin tipped him off about free tutoring available from neighborhood nonprofit organization Sistas and Brothas United. Abreu went for tutoring, and his grades soon improved, but there was a catch: S.B.U. asks those who receive tutoring to give back to the community by getting involved in their organizing projects, including their education activism as part of U.Y.C.
“I didn’t want to do this,” Abreu admitted. He said he was nervous to go to his first protest and put off by all the prep work and strategizing beforehand. “But I saw other kids progressing,” he said. “I got jealous. I started doing more work. My laziness went away.”
A large poster of the finalized Bill of Rights was propped at the front of the stage and every chair had a small printed bill for students to take back to their schools.
After Abreu and other students laid out the bill, City Councilmember Robert Jackson, chairperson of the Council’s Education Committee, addressed the crowd. He personally accepted every point of the Bill of Rights and pledged to introduce and push for passage of a Council resolution endorsing the platform. He also promised to write Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (both were invited to the convention but declined to attend), asking them to accept the Student Bill of Rights. Jackson promised to share with U.Y.C. any response he receives from the mayor or chancellor.
Tenelle Pierce gave the convention’s closing speech, capping a raucous and emotional day. In the summer of 2005 a school friend invited Pierce to join her in knocking on doors as part of a neighborhood voter registration drive organized by FUREE, a Downtown Brooklyn advocacy group. Pierce stayed involved, becoming a youth board member, and was at the first meeting earlier this year of FUREE’s fledgling youth group (every Friday about 15 teenagers have been meeting). One of the youth group’s first actions was to join the U.Y.C. coalition. Pierce was nervous to travel to Manhattan last January for her first U.Y.C. meeting, where she met 25 unknown youths and adults from unfamiliar neighborhoods of the city.
“I’ve mostly stayed in my neighborhood,” she explained. “In the summer I went to a Fresh Air Fund camp, but that was it.” She recalled having a point to raise at that first meeting during a debate over the possible renaming of the group, but being too intimidated to raise her hand or interject. But since then, she said, other U.Y.C. members “encouraged me to speak up and step up.”
She spent many hours in the weeks before the convention drafting and reworking her big speech. She knew she wanted to work in a quote she’d come across from Che Guevara (“Education is the property of no one. It belongs to the people as a whole. And if education is not given to the people, they will have to take it.”) Everything else in her speech was in flux as the convention date approached.
In the convention’s final moments, she strode confidently to the podium’s microphone as a D.J. played a loud snippet of hip-hop as a segue between speakers.
“More money goes into jails than into schools,” she told the crowd. “Now, is that right? They make putting youth like us in jail more important than trying to keep us educated. They think we don’t know what’s going on, but we do and our eyes are wide open.”
Offstage she said confidently of her audience, “Everybody feels what we’re talking about. I want them to take the Bill of Rights back to their schools and get the chancellor and the mayor to adopt them.”
Paddock works one day a week as co-coordinator of an after-school literacy program at Make The Road By Walking, one of the U.Y.C. coalition organizations.