From all across Ohio, from Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron, Kent, Columbus and Athens, student leaders came together for the Second Annual Ohio Youth Congress in Columbus from March 1-3. Our local issues may look different- some of us are fighting for racial justice on our campuses, others are working on gender and sexuality, and others are fighting for a more democratic, transparent, and student-led university. But through the differences in perspective and background, we diligently worked to craft a shared vision of Education Justice, and to build statewide student power. It was powerful, hilarious, exhausting and dope.
I had not attended the first Ohio Youth Congress, and so was especially excited to play a role as a planner, facilitator and trainer, to say nothing of meeting the teams from outside Northeast Ohio, where I work with leaders at Cleveland State, University of Akron and Kent State University.
On the first night of the Congress, Ohio Educators’ Association (OEA) President Patricia Frost-Brooks set the tone with humor and gravity by telling the gathered students a story from her home school district of East Cleveland.
Dressed as Cat in the Hat. With a doll.
In honor of National Read Across America Day, she had just celebrated the award of a $1,000 gift from a major corporation to a local elementary school. The $1,000 went to filling the previously empty school library with books. But as President Frost-Brooks put it, is it Education Justice that an elementary school, funded by the property taxes of a primarily renter and low-income community, 99.5% Black or African-American, is dependent on the charity of a corporation for basic library books?
The next day we learned about centuries of struggle around the purpose of education; crafted shared statewide values and a vision for Educational Justice in a heated, passionate, and vital small group breakout; heard from a panel of experts about the policies and budgets that increase the cost of college, weaken public schools and maintain the school to prison pipeline; discovered moral outrage through a skit demonstrating the forces behind the scenes putting those policies in place; and were schooled in the use of power in the service of our values and moral outrage. It was a big day, so we ate a mountain of burritos, and then set to the late-night task of combining all the small groups’ values and visions using flash cards with the words most often used by the group earlier that day.
It was a beautiful sight to see, a group of students from most of the major schools re-arranging flash cards with values and visions on the window of St. Stephen’s Church, peering into the darkness beyond the window, together.
On the last day of the Congress we got into the nitty-gritty of campaign and strategy planning and leadership development, coming out with local ‘peak charts’ (detailing the series of tactics reaching towards a campaign goal) and talking with fellow leaders about what leadership styles we want to grow in. The day was cut short, as some campuses had to head back home early.
But, at the end of the day and weekend, that’s not so surprising. Democracy, building power, transforming ourselves and our communities is always unfinished, imperfect work. While the Congress left some trainings and conversations for later, and there’s more work to be done, I was proud and humbled to have been a part of it, and can’t wait to see the amazing work locally and statewide that comes out of it.