UM program gets teens thinking like budding activists

High school students learn strategies to tackle issues

January 20, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

They may not know the details of the $31 million deficit that the city school system is facing.

But what a group of politically inclined high school students does know is that classrooms in some Baltimore schools are unheated and some restrooms have no toilet paper.

On Saturday, they got a crash course on what to do about it.

Law students from the University of Maryland and community advocates came together at the law school to teach activist strategies to the group of 40 or so students.

"Inherently, within these kids, the issues are all there," said Terry Hickey, a law professor at the university who runs Community Law in Action, a youth leadership and advocacy program. "But nobody has ever modeled for them how to actually impact and change the things around them."

The first lesson -- how to identify an issue -- was a piece of cake. The students, mostly from city schools but some from Baltimore County and as far as Washington, brainstormed and discovered that they have lots of complaints in common.

Students said school facilities were dirty and classes were boring. Textbooks were decades old. Teachers and administrators didn't care or didn't listen. Guidance counselors didn't give useful advice. School doors were chained shut -- an apparent fire hazard.

The second lesson -- how to build a political movement -- got their creative juices flowing. They practiced creating fliers to attract people to protest rallies. They discussed the pros and cons of strategies such as sit-ins, walk-outs, petitions, boycotts, and they made up names for their fictional advocacy groups. "Teachers Gone Crazy," one student suggested.

Law student Jerry Blanding shook his head. "When you name your organization, you want to have something more positive-sounding, to draw people in," Blanding said.

The group settled on the name "Youth in Baltimore."

The third lesson involved learning how to target the person or group in charge. Students acted out scenarios between a superintendent and a student with a complaint, analyzing the official's tactics. "Did he ignore you? Refer you? Delay you? Placate you?" an organizer asked the students to ponder.

By the end of the session, the youngsters had drafted a list of concerns at their schools, ranging from emergency needs to less urgent ones. They also identified possible strategies to get the concerns met.

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