As I sat at my computer at my dining room table in Olympia, Washington, in the Cascadia region of North America, I read about the new round of protests erupt around the world. In one day, there were reports of students in Chile, the working class masses of Brazil, the dissatisfied citizens of Egypt, and angry protests against the American president’s visit in South Africa.
These proverbial fires have been burning for a while now. Countries around the world have been attempting to quell mass protest since before the World Trade Organization eruption in nearby Seattle back in 1999. In the decade-plus since then, more people have risen up than ever before.
I believe that from their uncomfortable positions as the passive recipients of adult-driven education systems, students around the world are at the heart of the social upheaval facing almost every nation today. Faced with stark incongruities between the highly-interactive, diverse, socially-driven, media-saturated environment they live in every single day and the now-anomalous, anti-collaborative, homogeneous, inherently disengaging schools they’re compelled to attend by law throughout the school year, it is absolutely no wonder why the fires are burning tonight.
However, many are taking these movements so far as to demand the dismantling of society as we know it today, instead advocating a kind of anarchistic autonomy. They have essentially given up hope and are reaching for something completely different.
For just over a decade, I’ve been working with schools across Canada and the United States to develop a new understanding of democracy. Centered in a partnership-oriented transformational approach to school improvement, I initially called the frameworks I developed “meaningful student involvement.” Research-driven and experience-proven, I was proud to facilitate learning experiences with educators of all ages focused on this approach. Since 2002, I have consulted on more than 50 projects in a wide range of diverse schools serving low-income students, minority communities, and other places labelled “hard-to-serve” through government assessments. I still believe democracy requires public schools.
However, I see now that whatever I’ve been trying to do is falling short.
Tonight, young teenagers are leading and rallying on the frontlines of the more than 800,000 people participating in Santiago and other cities across Chile.
These are the types students I want to reach, the ones who are starting the protests. They are on fire, and they are our hope. I want them to learn the ins and out of the education systems and government agencies that make decisions on their behalves everyday. I want them to not fight for new governments or reformed schools, but transformed learning environments. I want them to understand that democratic societies require free, engaging, inclusive, and comprehensive education, and that schools right now are capable of meeting these demands—if only students themselves know what to demand.
As they continue to burn, I hope to reach students where they are and show them where they can go, in positive, powerful, and proactive ways that can benefit everyone in society. They are our only hope, and we can reach them, because ultimately, they are us.