Sign up for our newsletter

Share This Story

The 180 Podcast Dec 13, 2021

The 180 Podcast: Student Voices: Fighting for an Inclusive Education System

Student Voices: Fighting for an Inclusive Education System

Listen to part one here.

In our last conversation, we heard from leaders of the National Equity Project on what it means to create equitable learning environments for all children, providing each child with what they need to be successful.

On this episode, we hear from students – two students who are youth advocates for the National Equity Project. What do they say young people need to be successful? How do they view the education system – who do they think it is designed for, and what critical pieces do they see as missing? 

Ana De Almeida Amaral is a Stanford University sophomore studying comparative studies in race and ethnicity with a double major in political science. Micah Daniels is a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Chicago, majoring in neuroscience. Both lead and facilitate engagement with students from 18 school districts across the U.S., helping them advocate for equitable learning in their communities. Ana and Micah have a direct line to what American middle and high school students say they want from their educations today – and their ideas for how to get it.


Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: Ana, Micah, thank you both so much for joining. Appreciate your time.

Ana De Almeida Amaral: Thanks for having us.

Micah Daniels: Yes. Thank you. I’m super excited. 

Chris Riback: Why don’t we start with both of you telling me about each of you? Where did you grow up? Where are you in school? What are you studying? And, of course, how did you get engaged with the National Equity Project? Ana, why don’t we start with you?

Ana De Almeida Amaral: Thanks. So my name is Ana. I am 20 years old and I’m originally from Chula Vista, California, which is one of the most southern parts of San Diego. So I grew up in a border community in a place that was full of a lot of Mexican Americans and Chicanos. And that was really important for my development of my own identity as a Chicana. I went to high school at High Tech High in Chula Vista, and that was where I really started getting involved with equity work and community organizing. 

There at High Tech High is where I founded the Ethnic Studies Program with two of my comrades, Isa and Lus, and it was through that work, trying to spread that work and share that work with more people that I got involved with National Equity Project. We’ve had a really wonderful relationship of co-designing for youth liberation and the liberation of all people in schools.

Chris Riback: Micah, how about you? 

Micah Daniels: Well, I am from Oak Park, Illinois, which is a west suburb of Chicago. I literally live two blocks away from Austin, which is a west neighborhood of Chicago. I’ve lived in the same house my whole entire life. I’ve gone to Oak Park schools, and I graduated high school from Oak Park and River Forest High School. And now I go to the University of Illinois at Chicago and my major currently is neuroscience. Basically how I got connected to the National Equity Project is during high school.

I helped found this Women in Leadership Club. I did Black Leaders Union. I did student council. I did theater a little bit and I did Spoken Word, through all of my different extracurriculars I often worked with one of my teachers who his name is Avi Lessing.

And he really became a mentor to me, someone that really advocated for me and the school, because throughout my high school experience I had a lot of white proximity due to the classes I took and the clubs that I had. And I was one of few Black people or people of color in all the kind of communities that I was in until I got to Spoken Word in Black Leaders Union. 

My activism is through my art I would say the most and that’s the most passionate part of me. 

Chris Riback: Micah, and I want to ask you about your poetry. Also, what a terrific point you make about the power of mentors. And I know that you and Ana are doing mentorship and advocacy. What does it mean to be a youth advocate of the National Equity Project? Ana?

Ana De Almeida Amaral: I would say my biggest role at National Equity Project is being someone that has the closest proximity to the youth that we work with. A lot of you know the start of our job is just building relationships with students, becoming friends with them, and just building that relationship especially because everyone who is on our youth advocate team either was in high school last year or was in high school in the last three years.

And so my main role is building that relationship and then using that in every space that I walk into. Every time I’m in a National Equity Project meeting I’m thinking about how would our students feel in this space? And if we’re planning a conference for all of the adults and the students, my job is to really advocate for what do the students need? What do the students want in this space? And how can we make this space one that truly values and centers student experience?

Chris Riback: And Micah, how about you?

Micah Daniels: Something that we say a lot in our own planning meetings and the youth affinity space whenever we’re around youth is that they are the largest stakeholders when it comes to education. So, a lot of the times students feel like they don’t have a voice or they don’t feel empowered or uplifted to make change within their communities or within their schools, or they’re around adults who act like they’re listening and don’t really listen.

And so I think our job as the youth advocates is, like Ana said, to really build those relationships. And so that way if they don’t feel comfortable talking to any adults or they don’t feel like they’re being truly heard or listened to, we could be there to listen to them and hear what they need and then go forward by providing them with the help the best way that we can.

Chris Riback: Ana, give me a little more detail on what exactly you do as a youth advocate. I understand there are “circle” teams.

Ana De Almeida Amaral: We’re partnered with 18 school districts across the country. And basically what we do is we go in and we set up these circle teams, which are a team of educators who are classroom teachers, administrators, the superintendent, and a group of students as well. 

We help them design these teams, and then we help them facilitate equitable and liberatory change in their schools through the circle teams. Part of that is over the summer, we had a youth liberation symposium, which was where all of the students from all the circle teams came and joined us at a conference. And we energized the youth. 

We did a lot of learning. And then we also left the symposium with the artifact of a list of student demands. What are students thinking they want changed in their school right now? Then students bring those demands into the circle teams, and then the circle teams work together to try to those demands and to make meaningful change towards the vision that students have carved out for what they want for the future.

Chris Riback: Micah, what were some of the things they were demanding?

Micah Daniels: I worked directly in the youth symposium with Morgan Hill Unified School District. And some things they were saying, for one, it was a safe space for people of color or for queer people. So I think what was kind of common in a lot of demands was, one, representation and, two, inclusivity.

So whether that’s gender neutral bathrooms or that’s to have a Black leaders union, or a space where people of color can gather and be comfortable with people that share their similar experiences. But those are just a couple examples. Ana, I don’t know if you want to add anymore.

Ana De Almeida Amaral: I think a big one is students want to be in the room when decisions are being made. They feel like school is happening to them, right? They feel even though we talk about this a lot, they’re the main stakeholders of a school. They’re the largest population that enters a school and they’re the ones that are most deeply impacted by schools. They feel like they’re not getting a say in what’s going on at their school. 

So that was a big demand that we saw all the way around, probably in almost every single district. And then that’s also really awesome because that’s part of what the service of a circle team is, right? Is getting students in the room with admin and teacher in a way that positions them as partners in learning and in change.

Chris Riback: Micah, what does it mean to have “living lungs”?

Micah Daniels: I feel like this was from a poem or something. Is that from a-

Chris Riback: This is from a poem that you wrote.

Micah Daniels: That I wrote.

Chris Riback: And it was a very powerful poem. 

Micah Daniels: I’m glad that you thought so. I think when I wrote that poem it was about how everyone in the class is mechanical and they feel like they’re not real. 

There is the one being in my poem that I featured that was coming more and more alive as the poem went on because they were realizing what a broken and messed up system they were in that they needed to get out. So I think what are living lungs? That’s the awareness that you’re stuck in a system that’s not benefiting you, that you should do all that you can to escape from. 

Chris Riback: Micah, you used some very powerful language, the system is broken and messed up. What does that mean?

Micah Daniels: I think the system is broken because of that standardization of that conformity and assimilation that schools try to force upon students where they can’t even see themselves in the things that they’re learning. 

Their humanity is not recognized. And you’re in classrooms where there’s this super hierarchical structure where you have the teacher who just lectures and then you have students who listen and regurgitate it back and then get the good grade. 

And that is not what I think. And I think many other people agree is what school should be about. It should be about liberating students. And by that, I mean allowing them to see a world where their unique characteristics add to it. And to be taught in a way where their strengths and their specific qualities that only they have are shown that they can make a difference in the world and this world belongs to them as it does anyone else.

So that’s what I would say. I meant that it’s broken and it’s messed up because when you have students that are going to school and they feel like school is not a safe space and they are having panic attacks over test grades and they don’t feel comfortable telling their teachers when they’re struggling, or they’re having a hard time at home and that comes out in the way that they behave in school or something like that. 

And then you just have people who are quick to discipline them, quick to not recognize that there are deeper things happening, that school may not be their number one priority, that they have a whole life that school is part of, but also might not be number one on the list. They should be in places where they’re given support to deal with the things that are happening in their life, where everything that they’re struggling with, everything that they’re passionate about is supported and fostered.

And that’s not what where we’re at in school right now. 

Ana De Almeida Amaral: I appreciate that so much, Micah. I think my dream when I talk about liberatory schools and liberatory education, my dream is that students walk into school and feel like they’re being seen as a whole person. 

Are we seeing students as whole people who make mistakes and are deserving of forgiveness? Or are we seeing them as beings in our institution that only have value when they are conforming to our standards or conforming to our rules? And so the dream is that students can come into school and feel like they are a whole person. And not only is that honored and respected, but that’s the goal. That’s the goal of being there.

I also dream of a school, I dream of an education that gives students agency. The most meaningful education that I ever got was one that I felt like I had to turn around and I had to tell everyone. I was like, this is so important and everyone needs to know this. And when I walked down the street, I was looking at things and I was like, this connects to exactly what I’m learning. This feels important. This feels like it’s meaningful in my life.

I feel like I have to do something with it. 

Chris Riback: Ana, I read where you wrote that all ethnic studies students can tell you about their moment of awakening. The moment when they learned something that changed the way they see the world. What was your moment?

Ana De Almeida Amaral: Oh, it’s hard to pick just one, but I think the first real moment I remember feeling truly transformed by my education was in the ethnic studies class that I helped found. We had this ritual that we would do every single day. At the end of the class, we would all circle up by the door and we would do a unity clap, which is a ritual that started during the United Farm Workers Movement. It was a way that they opened and closed organizing spaces, but basically it’s a clap that happens in unison.

At the end, we do one really strong clap together. And once we hit that last clap our space is closed and we leave and we go out into the world. And that moment to me is so sacred because it’s standing in a circle of people who I feel really saw who I was. And not only saw who I was, but loved me really deeply and I trusted them very deeply.

And they were people that I had done such deep, profound learning about myself, about my history, about the history of my ancestors that I felt like we were just in such a deep unity and solidarity that this clap I felt like it rang through the entire world and all of space and all of time.

That’s really how powerful it felt to me. And so that is a really sacred moment in which I feel the first time that it happened, I felt transformed. And every time that I get to go back to that ethnic studies class and participate in the unity clap, I feel truly transformed.

Chris Riback: Do the students that you work with today, do they feel seen in their classes?

Ana De Almeida Amaral: I don’t think all of them feel seen. I think it’s really hard to feel seen as a student of color, or as a queer student, or as a disabled student because there’s a lot of the way that school runs and the way that school was structured that was created to make us feel invisible or to make us silent. Most people of color can tell you that they’ve never once learned about anyone that looks like them. 

Or in my case, the only time I looked like the people in my textbooks was when we were talking about them as victims of genocide and a justified genocide that was for the greater good. And that’s like super damaging. And other than that, in all of my history books, people like me just didn’t exist. And so to feel seen was to be reminded that I’m powerful because all of the people that came before me are extremely powerful and did so much. And I think our students right now are working really hard to try to make each other feel seen. 

That’s something that I really love about our youth affinity space, which is a meeting that we have once a month, which is where we gather with all of the youth from all the different districts that we work with. So students from Washington, all the way to New Jersey, we get together on the Zoom call and we hang out and talk about how our organizing is going. 

And that’s a place that I feel people are really seeing each other. People are celebrating each other’s work. They’re celebrating the organizing that their friend is doing even though they’ve never met in person and they’re on the other side of the country. But I think students are working really hard right now to make each other feel seen because they don’t often feel seen in their classrooms.

Chris Riback: Micah, does that resonate with you?

Micah Daniels: I would definitely say so. The high school students and some are middle school as well that we have in the youth affinity space, they’re all at different levels of their organizing, but there’s always support coming from all sides, which is just amazing. 

In our most recent meetings there is one person who was doing a ton of work and the other students, their reaction to the work that that other student was doing was the most genuine and authentic joy. And they were just so happy and I think also inspired by the work that this person was putting in. And I just hope that the youth affinity space can grow and we’ll have more and more students that join and more and more students that join the circle teams, which is how we’re connected. 

Chris Riback: What do students want from their education?

Micah Daniels: They just want education and school to be made for everyone. A lot of the times school is just made for the system of success that is not made for people of color, and queer people, and disabled people. And instead, leaves them out on the margins. And I think that we’re all just fighting for an education system that is inclusive to every single kind of student and it’s so weird how school is such a standardized thing.

We’re all human beings and we all learn in different ways and we all have different backgrounds and we each explore the world and participate in our lives in completely different ways.

And at a place where there’s such formative years like school where a lot of students are discovering who they are or who they want to be and they’re pushed to fit into these boxes and molds that were not built for them and often work to break them down and work against them.

I think the complete standardization of we’re just teaching you what you need to teach in order to get an A, I’m going to teach you this, that and that so you can regurgitate it back to me to get a good grade, so you can get a good score, so you can go to a “good college” and then get a “good job.” Or we just measure your level of success based on the amount of money you make. 

That was not what I wanted out of school. I wanted to just be there to learn about the world and learn about how I can participate in the world in a way that I felt was most powerful. And I wanted school to tell me you matter for the way you are. You shouldn’t have to change to fit any kind of system so you can “succeed” in a way that was not built for you. 

And I think the students that we’re working with now want that too. 

Ana De Almeida Amaral: I resonate with that really deeply, Micah. So I have two answers to that. The first is, so, Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” talks about how education can either be this tool that creates social reproduction. You will either come in and be indoctrinated with all of these ideas like Micah is talking about, or school can be revolutionary. School can teach you how to expand your mind in ways that go past all of these ideas of what oppressive norms and realities should be.

And I think when I was going to school that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to sit in a classroom and be taught in a way that did not align with the real values that I had about justice, and liberation, and humanity. And so that kind of connects to my second answer, which is I think students want a school that is created to function in a way that values them. Right now, school functions in a way that values domestication, it values compliance, it values conformity. 

The way that you do well in school is you do exactly what you’re told, in the way that you’re told, you do well on the test because you study the exact material that you’re told to study. You say exactly what you’re supposed to say and that will lead you to all of these pathways to success. I don’t want to be part of an education system that values conformity, and domestication, and complacency. I want to be part of an institution of a community that values humanity and radical love. 

A lot of the students come into the affinity space and they say these wildly radical things that I love. They’re like, there should never be any homework ever. And I love it because to a lot of adults are like, oh, kids hate responsibility or whatever ideas they have of young people. But then they turn around and they’re like, what I want to do is I want to go home and I want to get involved in my community.

I wish I didn’t have to sit at home at my desk so I could go and work in a community garden, or be part of a club at my local boys and girls club, or YMCA or whatever. These students are really pushing the boundaries of what we believe should be happening at our schools in a way that’s really easy to dismiss.

It’s really easy to dismiss those big radical ideas because we think they’re unfounded. But when we just give them time to speak and we just listen, we learned that these young people have these beautiful, radical ideas.

Chris Riback: Ana, the ideas that you’re talking about right there, there are plenty of parents, there are plenty of administrators, there are plenty of school boards who would say that’s crazy talk and that’s not what school is about.

And you might not be seen in a specific way, but you’re going to change the system in a way that’s going to benefit you and hurt my kid. What would you say to those parents, or administrators, or school boards? 

Ana De Almeida Amaral: I think the first thing that I always tell people is go and sit down in an ethnic studies class and see what you learn in an ethnic studies class. A lot of time that I spent in my ethnic studies education was not learning about just or indigenous people of Mexico. I spent a lot of time studying Black history. I spent a lot of times studying Filipino history and Asian American history and all of those things deeply impacted my perspective. They impacted my perspective of myself, of my peers. 

It allowed me to build relationships with other people in ways that I couldn’t have before because I didn’t really know the entire history of the way that our communities have been in solidarity for generations. And so I really think that absolutely everyone has so much to gain from an ethnic studies curriculum and from a liberatorily designed education because a lot of radical Black lesbian feminists have mapped this out for us before.

I’m definitely not the first person to say this, but when we center the most marginalized in our community, absolutely everyone benefits. When we center Black trans women, every one of every gender, of every sexuality, of every unit race benefits because we are able to create liberation for the people who are most marginalized and everyone benefits. I’ve had a lot of White people say that to me.

It’s not just people of color that suffer from White supremacy. It’s not just students that suffer from the hierarchy of education. Our teachers suffer too. What kind of dehumanization do we have to put on everyone in order for them to believe these things about each other?

And I think that’s what I really love about the way that we work together at National Equity Project and don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of work to get there. But the way we can get students and administrators and teachers to see each other as real people and want to work together in a way that’s like this stride to a beautiful vision of liberation is so beautiful.

Because it releases them from the change of this hierarchy of school oppression on every aspect. The administrators are liberated, the teachers are liberated and the students are liberated from not having to exist within the system anymore of hierarchy.

Chris Riback: And, Micah, what would your commentary be? 

Micah Daniels: That question just reminds me of a situation that was happening in my high school and currently is happening in my high school. So in those honors classes and in those AP classes it was from my own personal experience, it seemed like it was 90% White people. I did a lot of honors and AP classes and I was only, there was max three other Black people in my classes. 

And this was a school that’s 30% Black, which is not okay at all. And then I just remember when we were having a conversation in one of my classes about de-tracking and this girl was like, I don’t want to de-track because that means that I’ll be losing the ability to gain more knowledge by being in classes where they’re teaching at a lower level. And then she was like, that’s why honor classes need to stay because I need honors level of difficulty. 

And then I had to speak up. So then I was like, you realize in these honors and AP classes, it’s majority White people. So then is your opinion that all of these White people that are in our classes compared to the diverse majority Black population that’s in non-honors courses, do you think that all of these White people are more capable than all of these Black people? And then she had nothing to say in response because you probably didn’t even realize that implicit bias that she had so deeply rooted.

And there is literally statistics that when students help each other, when you teach people you become more knowledgeable. And when you’re the one being taught, you become more knowledgeable as well. And I just think that when you’re in a school system where it’s inclusive and representative of every student that’s in that school and every student that’s not in that school, you have people growing from every level all the time. 

And like Ana said, once the most oppressed people are liberated, once I as a Black woman am liberated, then every single White woman is liberated too because if I’m free then they’re free as well. And so when it comes to discussions like de-tracking and then, of course, you have those stigmas where it’s like you’re in the honors class, so you’re in the smart class. You’re in the non-honors class, so you’re in the stupid class. 

So then you have a bunch of Black and Brown people thinking that they’re just inherently less intelligent than these White people that are in these honors classes, but really it’s just what their parents decide. And a lot of them don’t know how to or weren’t given the resources to know how to advocate for themselves and understand their own intelligence and own capability. 

And this was just a really random thing. But when people travel the world they talk about how being globally minded completely changes their perspective and how they view the world and how they view other people. And I think you can be globally minded by just talking to the people in your community and watching how your perspective grows like crazy. So it’s sometimes hard to reach the people who are in opposition to more inclusive education and more liberatory education. 

But I would say honestly I’ll be like, let’s just give it a shot. Just try, maybe we put it in a little microcosm, like an ethnic studies class, you see how it changes students of a super diverse set and see how much they feel seen, how much they feel represented and how much more capable and encouraged they seem, they are, and hopefully, fingers crossed, that would cause them to change their opinion.

Ana De Almeida Amaral: Yes. I want to add to that. When you break it down like that. When you break down a school structure like that, like tracking, it becomes really, really clear how committed school institutions are to White supremacy. If a school is committed to White supremacy that they have a structure of how they track students that literally enforces it and has been enforcing it for years.

And so that’s a big part of our work, I feel like, is revisiting all of these structures that we have in our school and determining what do they really value and what do we want them to value? I don’t know about you guys, but I think most people don’t want to be in school institutions that value White supremacy. I hope so.

Chris Riback: Ana, what is your vision of liberatory education? Liberated to do what? Liberated to be what? And how would you answer concern around questions of curriculum or rigor when you talk about a liberatory education?

Ana De Almeida Amaral: So a liberatory education, is an education that allows young people to be seen as fully human when they walk into their schools. I think what that looks like, a lot of people are like, practically, what does that look like? I get that concern. I really do. But I think the main work of trying to define what liberatory education looks like is rethinking literally everything. 

How can I make a structure that really tells the students these are the values, right? And then also just telling them. In my experience here at college, I had a professor, and I know this is different because it’s university, but who said… She was talking about her attendance policy. She said, “I trust that being here is important to you. And so if you are absent, I trust that it’s because something happened. And if you’d like to share that with me, thank you.”

And I was in her class every single day, right? What she showed me is that she valued that I was serious about her class, and I cared about my learning, and I cared deeply about my education. And so I think that’s the work of transforming into a liberatory education is rethinking, what are the values that we are showing in the education structures that we have right now?

And what do we want them to really tell? When we’re talking about curriculum, again, when you have little or no curriculum that shares the histories and perspectives of people of color, the values that you are sharing are that people of color don’t exist, their lives were not important, and they did not do anything to contribute to history. That’s really painful and really damaging. What are the values that we want our students to get out of a history education? 

For me, I wanted to get a history education that made me feel like I could be connected to movements that were important. I know my people were there fighting for the Farm Workers Movement and making sure that they could have the rights and the wages that they deserved. I wanted to see that aside from struggle, my people created beautiful art and they were beautiful mathematicians. And they knew so much about space and math and science. That’s something that I hope to get out of my education. And I don’t think a lot of students feel that right now.

Chris Riback: What guidance would you give, what insight would you offer to a superintendent, to a school board, maybe to parents about what you are hearing from students that is something tangible? What would be the first thing you would suggest that those people in positions of authority do to close the gap between where their schools are now and where the students that you work with want their schools to be? Ana, why don’t we start with you?

Ana De Almeida Amaral: I think the very first thing that, like you said, people in positions of authority and power, the first thing that they need to do is recognize what position that they’re in. We need to start thinking about schools like we think about any other system of oppression, right? If you are a man living in a cis hetero patriarchy, you got to sit down and you have to think really deeply, what do I gain from patriarchy? And because I gain from a system of oppression, what responsibility do I have to dismantling it?

Same with White people. You have to sit down and you have to think about what do I gain from racism? And now what responsibility do I have to being an ally in changing that? Administrators, teachers, adults in school institutions, you gain from a system of oppression that marginalizes young people. What do you have to gain from that system? A lot of times it’s control, it’s power over other people. And now what responsibility do you have to deconstructing that and changing that?

Chris Riback: Micah?

Micah Daniels: I, once again, second what Ana says. That’s a wonderful point. They definitely have to recognize the power that they have. And with it, of course, when you’re in a position of power and authority, you just automatically become an oppressor in some ways. 

And so they have to realize that as soon as they step into the presence of students, those students are not going to feel comfortable to be themselves. They’re not going to feel safe to address their concerns. So to tell them to create that environment could be a really difficult task to do right away. 

But I would say one thing that is tangible and probably not too difficult is whenever there’s decision makers, there’s a group of people who are deciding what’s what, make sure that there are students there, and not just your students that are getting A’s and that are the favorites of every single teacher because they’re the ones that are always participating and getting the best grades.

You want students that represent every single part of the school that they are in charge of and have authority in. And make sure that you are listening to their concerns and you welcome their concerns. You don’t become defensive when they share how they feel and you really help them feel listened to. 

Ana De Almeida Amaral: All of our educators and teachers come into this work because they love young people. I’ve never met a teacher that does not like young people or is not in education because they really believe that this is where important work happens. And so there’s a lot of dissonance in that. Knowing that I came into this work because this is so deeply important to me. 

And then to realize that I’m someone that might be causing harm in places, not because I am doing bad things, but because the system dehumanizes all of us, right? Again, everyone is harmed when a system of oppression is in our space and rules our community. And so I think really recognizing that and like Micah said, anytime that you’re like, I don’t know if we should have students in the room for this, have students in the room. 

I’ve worked with so many educators who are like, “We’re not ready. We’re not ready to bring students in.” The students are going to completely change the perspective. You may be thinking this is what’s wrong with our school, and students are going to walk in and completely unveil an entire side of an entire perspective you have not even thought of yet, and that’s because they are the main stakeholders in schools. They are the ones that come here every day and really are impacted by all of the decisions that are being made at a larger level.

So bring those students in. And most importantly, build meaningful relationships with them. That is how these dialogues, how these critical conversations happens. It’s by building relationships with each other, that trust that our educators are here because they love young people and because they want to make meaningful change and our students are here because they really want to make meaningful change, and they love their community as well.

Chris Riback: Ana, Micah, thank you. Thank you for this dialogue and critical conversation. And thank you for the work that you guys do with students all over the country.

Ana De Almeida Amaral: Thanks for having us.

Micah Daniels: Thank you so much.


More from Turnaround on this topic: