Note: The field of youth organizing is dynamic, with new groups emerging and existing groups sometimes forging fresh alliance. As such, this list falls short of being definitive and complete, nor does it intend to capture the many youth groups engaged in organizing around issues other than school reform, critical issues like environmental justice, community renewal, poverty. We include here descriptions and links to organizations, some youth-led, with deep experience in youth organizing for school reform.
For those wanting to learn more about the field, we recommend two recent reports—one produced by the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing, the other by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
Baltimore Algebra Project (Baltimore, MD)
The Baltimore Algebra Project is a fully youth run non-profit organization that tackles math illiteracy and seeks to empower youth within the Baltimore school system. The project employs youth, both high school and college students, as classroom instructors, teacher assistants, tutors, and organizers. It is currently involved in three campaigns: advocating a national Student Bill of Rights, fighting the school-to-prison pipeline, and quality food justice.
Boston-area Youth Organizing Project (Boston, MA)
BYOP organizes high school students across the Boston metropolitan areas. With chapters in some 22 high schools from suburbs to inner city, BYOP has worked to improve student-teacher relations and clean up school facilities, as well as lobbied in the community to reopen recreational facilities and extend the hours of public transportation passes. BYOP is sponsored by City Mission Society and is partnered with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.
Californians for Justice Education Fund
Californians for Justice is a statewide grassroots organization that works for racial justice and brings together youth and adults pushed to the margins of the political process. Its campaigns have included Improving School Health and Conditions, Dismantling the "Prison Track," and Equalizing Funding and Resources" among others. The current campaign, Campaign for Quality Education, includes a "Tax the 1%, Education the 99%" petitionl. CFJ engages youth through student-led high school teams, summer leadership academies, student “know your rights” trainings, and skill building in media and policy work.
Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth (San Francisco, CA)
Since 1999, Coleman Advocates has waged a determined campaign to carve a decision-making role for students in the San Francisco public schools. Victories include a second student delegate seat to the school board elected by the general student body, the creation of school-based health clinics in all seven of the district's major high schools, and a district policy that restricts police interaction with students on school campuses. More recently youth organizers at Coleman Advocates waged and won a year-long campaign to convince the SFUSD to make the state's required curriuculum for college ("A-G") the de facto curriculum for all high school students. Its current educational justice focus is supporting credit recovery programs.
InnerCity Struggle (East Los Angeles, CA)
InnterCity Struggle is a youth-driven organization fighting for educational equity and justice in East Los Angeles. ICS has a database of over 20,000 youth, parent and community members who have signed up in support of ICS campaigns, ranging from increasing the number of counselors in the areas four high schools and pressing officials to honor their commitment to making the "A-G" curriculum the standard to winning state funds to reduce class size and educating voters about its "Education Not Incarceration" vision.
Padres & Jovenes Unidos (Denver, CO)
With roots in the struggle for educational justice, Padres Unidos has evolved into a multi-issue organization led by people of color who work for educational excellence, racial justice for youth, immigrant rights and quality healthcare for all. Jóvenes Unidos, the youth initiative of Padres Unidos, emerged as young people became active in reforming their schools, ending the school to jail track and organizing for immigrant student rights. Both Padres and Jóvenes Unidos build power to challenge the root cause of discrimination, racism and inequity by exposing the economic, social and institutional basis for injustice as well as developing effective strategies to realize meaningful change.
Kids First (Oakland, CA)
Kids First is a multiracial organization working to create opportunities for Oakland youth to become leaders in transforming their schools and community. In 1996, Kids First drafted, qualified, and successfully passed the Measure K ballot initiative, which requires the city to set-aside $72 million in additional funds for youth programs over twelve years. In 2001, it organized a citywide protest of high-stakes testing in the Oakland Unified School, demanding equitable funding based on need rather than test scores. In 2002, Kids First united with other youth groups to design and secure a two-year, two million dollar pilot program that provides free bus passes to students who qualify for the school free-lunch program and a discounted pass of $15 per month for all other students. Recent years have brought additional victories.
Make the Road by Walking (Brooklyn, NY)
Make the Road by Walking is a not-for-profit, membership-led organization based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, composed mostly of low-income Latino and African-American residents. Its Youth Power Project encourages community youth, aged 5-19, to become leaders in their neighborhood and activists in their schools. Youth leaders work together to address some of the most intransigent problems in their communities, including police misconduct, gentrification, access to higher education for undocumented students, high school reform, promoting academic success and college-going.
Philadelphia Student Union (Philadelphia, PA)
Started in 1995 by a group of young people who were concerned about not receiving the quality of education that they deserved, the Philadelphia Student Union exists to build the power of young people to demand a high quality education in the Philadelphia public school system. PSU is a youth-led organization that makes positive changes in the short term by learning how to organize to build power, but also by becoming life-long learners and leaders who can bring diverse groups of people together to address the problems that their communities face. Today, over 3,500 young people have completed the Student Union’s leadership development program. Recent campaign victories include convincing the Philadelphia school district to double the number of counselors and to put in place Student Succeess Centers—a place where students can get a variety of services including counseling, conflict resolution, social work services, and career and college help—in all of Philadelphia's high schools.
Seattle Young People's Project (Seattle, WA)
SYPP encourages and supports youth-led projects for social change. Its youth members, all under 19, vote on proposed projects that other young people introduce. Once a project passes a vote of SYPP's membership, it becomes an officially sponsored "initiative." Since 1992, young people at SYPP have arranged speaking engagements, held teen forums, met with teachers, administrators and politicians, posted flyers, held phone banks, coordinated conferences, led rallies, organized press conferences and published newspapers and "zines.”
Sistas and Brothas United (Bronx, NY)
Sistas & Brothas United (SBU) was founded in 1998 as the youth organizing arm of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). Neighborhood youth saw the need for young people to take ownership of their schools and communities to change the social-economic gap that exist between low-income black and brown communities and wealthier white communities. Focusing on educational justice as their bread and butter issue, SBU leaders began organizing their local community schools, building a solid base of students who fought for student safety, equitable resource allocation, and for a college prep curriculum for all students. Over a decade later, SBU leaders continue to fight for a quality education for all students Bronx-wide, city-wide, and nation-wide.
SoundOut is an expert assistance program focused on promoting Student Voice and Meaningful Student Involvement throughout education. SoundOut works with K-12 schools, districts, state and provincial education agencies, and nonprofit education organizations across the United States and Canada.
Students Against Testing
Students Against Testing is a nationwide network of young people who resist high stakes standardized testing and support real-life learning. The website spells out the group’s 10 reasons for opposing standardized testing and details action students and others can take. The site also offers downloadable fact sheets and flyers, order forms for free bumper stickers, and an extensive set of links to pertinent research, articles, resources, and organizations.
Urban Youth Collaborative (New York, NY)
The Urban Youth Collaborative brings New York City youth together to fight for change through local and citywide organizing strategies. For the past two years, UYC youth have focused their efforts on restoring free Metro cards for students. They've held press conferences and rallies outside the offices of the MTA, met with city officials from the Mayor’s office, City Council Members, and state legislators, held a meeting with the Chairman of the MTA which led to the halting of a vote on the MetroCards, and organized a student-led walk-out of 23 high schools in NYC which culminated in a 1000 student rally and march over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Youth in Action (Providence, RI)
Founded in 1999 by a senior at Providence’s innovative Met School, Youth in Action is a youth-driven organization aimed at empowering young people to develop and implement programs that improve the community, schools, and the lives of teens. Past campaigns have revolved around HIV education and environmental justice, as well as using the arts to express youth voice. Youth in Action’s current agenda includes youth media and school reform.
Youth United for Change (Philadelphia, PA)
Youth United for Change is a place for young people to act on their own behalf to improve the quality of public education. Students in YUC's six chapters identify and take action on the issues they see as most important to improving schools. Students attend weekly meetings, where they work together to develop platforms and strategies for their campaigns. Each YUC chapter conducts surveys and listening campaigns to identify students' most urgent concerns. Students then formulate demands and develops action campaigns to win them. These campaigns range from upgraded bathrooms and water fountains—the first victory of YUC at Kensington High—whole school reform, as in the conversion of Kensington to four small high schools. In early 2011, YUC released two reports on school discipline and dropout. The first, Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying Education Opportunities and Creating a Pathway to Prison, puts forth data showing that zero tolerance has made city schools less safe, criminalized or pushed out of school tens of thousands of students every year, and widened the school-to-prison pipeline. The second report, Pushed Out: Youth Voices in the Dropout Crisis, was researched and written by out-of-school youth and students in alternative schools. It offers a youth perspective on the dropout crisis, as well as recommendations to increase Philadelphia’s graduation rate.
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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”
– Deborah Meier, educator