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In this critical moment as schools across the country work to rebound from the pandemic’s lasting impacts, The 74 is launching a new effort to more directly elevate youth voices in our coverage.
We have assembled a diverse 11-member Student Council to weigh in on K-12 and higher education issues over the coming months. Ranging in age from 13 to 20, these young people hail from Oregon, Michigan, Tennessee and everywhere in between. In conversations students sandwiched between dance rehearsals, baseball tryouts and AP exam prep, members shared with us their background, what they love to do and what drives them.
They’re advocates for LGBTQ rights, for students with learning differences, for homeless youth and other causes that reflect their experiences. They listen to K-pop, nurture their collection of houseplants and unwind by watching episodes of the HBO pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death.
As experts in their own school communities, we expect that the anecdotes and perspectives Student Council members share may tip us off to important storylines we might otherwise miss.
“A lot of the time [student voices] are pushed to the side or patronized like, ‘That’s so cute,’” said council member Samantha Farrow, 16, of Brooklyn. “No, we actually have valuable things to say.”
We’ll tap members for their thoughts and reactions on issues ranging from youth mental health and COVID safety to academic recovery and teaching accurate history. Through regular check-ins, we’ll chart what life is like at school, at home and in their social lives as we enter the waning months of the third COVID-affected school year. By the end, we hope to produce a mosaic of youth reflections on education during this chapter of the pandemic.
If you have a question you’d like posed to the council, let us know by emailing Asher Lehrer-Small: email@example.com. The more interest a topic receives, the more we’ll strive to address it in our coverage.
Our sincere gratitude goes to America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition advocating for U.S. youth, which helped recruit candidates by introducing this opportunity to young people in its nationwide network.
Here are the members of The 74’s inaugural Student Council:
Ameera Eshtewi is a high school junior in Portland, Oregon. She loves computer coding and has pursued the discipline since her father signed her up for classes in fourth grade. Twenty-eight out of the 30 kids in the course were boys, she remembered. In a male-dominated field, “I’m all about women in STEM,” said Ameera. She’s also a runner and enjoys crafting poetry. As a young Libyan-American woman, she looks forward to speaking out against Islamophobia in school. “A lot of Muslim women who wear the hijab are getting attacked,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
ZaNia Stinson, 15, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina where she makes it her mission to give back to her community. Having spent the first 18 months of her life living with her biological grandmother in a homeless shelter before being adopted by what she calls her “now-forever family,” the high schooler distributes packages of food, drink and toiletries to women and children who lack permanent housing. “I know how it feels and I’ve been in their situation once,” said ZaNia.
She looks forward to speaking out about youth hunger and anxiety. When she’s not in school or distributing her “go-go bags,” she loves listening to gospel music and dancing — especially in the styles of jazz, funk and hip hop.
Kota Babcock, 20, studies journalism and media communications at Colorado State University. For years, he’s been involved in LGBTQ and HIV activism, working to educate adults who deal with queer students. The advocacy is personal. “I lost a lot of my friends when I came out” in seventh grade, said Kota, who is transgender, but his activism allowed him to build relationships within the LGBTQ community. “There was a lot of joy from just being able to connect with each other,” he said. He’s also a religious Jew and looks forward to speaking about Jewish issues on campus, where he and friends have been subject to anti-Semitic harassment, he said. The soon-to-be college grad works as news director at the radio station KCSU and in his free time he indulges his love for animals by caring for his two pet frogs and his bearded dragon, Sunshine.
Joshua Oh is a 13-year-old from Gambrills, Maryland. With his brother, he launched Kid Changemakers, an organization that helps connect local youth to volunteer opportunities. They’ve run food drives, diaper and menstrual product giveaways and distributed laptops during virtual learning. Outside that work, he likes to play basketball, draw and play video games such as Rocket League. As schools look to recover from the pandemic, Joshua wants the adult leaders to recognize that youth mental health is intimately tied to the friendships students nurture at school. “Social life is a very key component to school,” he said. “I think a lot of adults don’t understand that.”
Mahbuba Sumiya grew up in Detroit, Michigan and is now a first-year student at Harvard University where she studies computer science and economics. But she’s also an advocate for education equity. Going through Detroit public schools, she quickly became aware of glaring shortcomings: Substitute teachers covered for unfilled positions for months on end and schools often lacked the resources to help students process the traumas they experienced outside the classroom. “When students need mental health supports, they’re not there at all,” said Mahbuba. In her free time, she enjoys honing her fashion tastes with Pinterest boards and listening to her favorite musical artist Ruth B.
Diego Camacho is a high school senior in East Los Angeles. With dreams to pursue physics and journalism, his plans have been slowed by pandemic-related staffing shortages at his charter school. There’s been no physics teacher all year and the math teacher also fills in as the physical education lead. “It takes away opportunities,” Diego said. Having moved to the U.S. from Mexico in kindergarten, he empathizes with students at his school who arrived more recently. He sometimes helps them translate between English and Spanish, and looks forward to amplifying the experiences of immigrant students. The 18-year-old works in journalism for the Los Angeles Times’s High School Insider program and, outside of school, competes in a style of boxing he says mimics the great Mexican fighter Julio Cesar Chavez.
Devin Walton is a high school freshman in South Torrance, California where he loves studying biology and wants to one day become a veterinarian. Navigating school as a student with a learning disability, he gets distracted easily and feels that his teachers and peers don’t fully understand him. “They don’t get it,” he said. The teenager is looking forward to speaking out about his experiences to spread awareness about the supports that can help students with disabilities thrive. Having recently moved from a mostly Black and Hispanic high school with scarce resources to a better equipped majority-white and Asian campus a few miles away, Devin is also attuned to educational inequities. After school, he runs the 100m and 200m sprints for his track team, enjoys the online game Roblox and takes care of his dog, Oliver, and bearded dragon, Saurian.
Samantha Farrow, 16, lives in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. In January, she helped organize a student walkout for COVID safety in New York City schools that mobilized thousands of youth across the city. On the Student Council, she’s looking forward to speaking out for pandemic safety in classrooms and sharing her perspective on how schools can better respond to students’ needs. “A lot of the time [student voices] are pushed to the side or patronized like, ‘That’s so cute.’ … No, we actually have valuable things to say,” said Samantha. Outside the classroom, she performs in her school’s theater group — its most recent production was the musical comedy Something Rotten! — and enjoys listening to K-pop groups like mega-stars BTS.
Sydnee Floyd is a high school senior in Franklin, Tennessee. After moving from a small town in Kentucky to the greater Nashville area in middle school and experiencing what she described as the “culture shock” of a larger city, including meeting people without permanent housing, she launched the nonprofit Jumbled Dreams to help those in need. But when the pandemic hit, the high schooler, who usually likes to keep busy, “felt really alone and really isolated,” she said. “I can’t just sit here all day, that’s just not me. And I fell into a really deep depression.” So Sydnee launched an anti-bullying and mental health awareness podcast to destigmatize those experiences. “I didn’t want other people to feel like they are alone in this fight,” she said. Outside school and volunteer work, the teen enjoys photography and plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine.
Mia Miron is a 13-year-old from Pomona, California who loves taking care of plants and watching Korean dramas. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico before she was born and mostly speak Spanish, so the teen helps out with her family’s business selling baked goods by responding to Instagram orders in English. Her English proficiency has reached the point where she can transition out of her English Language Learner courses next year, but “it’s been a long journey,” she said. In addition to raising awareness about the challenges faced by multilingual learners, she also plans to speak out against cyberbullying over social media, which she said has become rampant. “It’s kind of breaking people at school,” she said.
Max Surprenant is a high school senior in Needham, Massachusetts. Having engaged in service work since he was a young boy, he believes giving back can be a way to help combat mental health challenges. Depression and anxiety often “come from a feeling of being powerless … and I think service is a really empowering tool,” he said. His volunteer organization Catching Joy is organizing its 98th event since COVID-19 struck, including delivering “blessing bags” complete with food, hygiene products and a hand-cut paper heart to those in need. When he’s not engaged in community service, you can find Max writing, which he plans to study next year at Harvard University, reading Russian literature or holding it down behind home plate as the catcher on his high school baseball team.
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