It took a lot for Justin Chan and his friends at Quincy High School to speak up. But when they saw a racist video circulating among students for a second time, Chan said they hit a breaking point. He felt the response from school administrators was disappointing.
So, on Nov. 12, Chan and his friends organized a walkout. They convinced more than 100 students to participate in a call for school leaders to work harder to get to the root of the issue. Their demands included a formal investigation and anti-bias training for students and staff.
"We need change," the students shouted as they left the school building that Friday morning, along with, "No justice, no peace."
"The school had pushed this under the carpet for too long," Chan said. "And we needed to say something. We needed to let the school know that we didn’t like the way they were handling these situations."
The walkout in Quincy is just one example of how students are increasingly calling for adults to do more to address issues like racism and violence in schools. Similar demonstrations have taken place this year in other communities, including Medford and Lawrence.
While student activism isn't new, experts say social media has been a game changer for organizing.
"I think one of the things that makes this moment unique is that social media allows young people to connect with each other in really effective, really fast ways," said Danika Manso-Brown, education director at the Anti-Defamation League of New England. She added that there’s a larger cultural shift happening right now, too.
"Schools are recognizing more and more that conversations about equity and inclusion have to be a part of the school philosophy and part of the school lens," Manso-Brown said. "I would say that existed five years ago, but it didn’t necessarily exist 10 years ago."
While the work to improve school culture shouldn’t fall solely on students, Manso-Brown said, they do play an important role: They’re on the ground every day and have an intimate knowledge of the student culture. And, she adds, it's important for students to feel their voices matter.
That's something Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau said they had to fight for as high school students at Boston Latin School in 2016. After trying for months to get leadership to meaningfully address incidents of racism at the school, the pair created a video highlighting their experiences and those of some of their peers. It quickly went viral.
"At the end of the day, we were really trying to work with the administration," said Noel, who is now 23. "We didn’t want to be seen as the troublesome Black people because we were already viewed as that."
Since they raised their voices, the school has undergone tremendous changes, from new leadership to anti-bias training, and an overhaul to the way the prestigious institution admits students.
"We underestimated how powerful what we were saying really was," said Webster-Cazeau, now 23 and an ethnic studies teacher at the Sarah Greenwood K-8 school in Boston, adding the whole experience taught her an important lesson. "If I have something to say, I say it now. ... I realized how much my voice and my perspective matters."
At the time, the social repercussions of speaking out were sometimes difficult, Noel and Webster-Cazeau said. The pair lost friends and faced public scrutiny, but said they don't regret taking action.
"I came out of this learning that I can be me, unapologetically," Noel said. "After all we had gone through, there was no one else I could be ... My identity, my blackness, my womanhood, all of it."
The fear of repercussions is something a lot of student activists experience before speaking up.
"I remember thinking, 'Are all of our friends going to turn our backs on us?' " said Averi Kaplowitch, one of two students who spoke out about an anti-Semitic incident at Marblehead High School in 2017. "That courage can be really tough."
Kaplowitch said working through that and seeing how powerful her voice could be was ultimately empowering. It's a sentiment all of these student activists said they can relate to, including Justin Chan in Quincy.
"I feel like this year I’ve realized that things don’t happen if you are scared, and things don’t happen if you don’t have a voice," Chan said.
This segment aired on December 27, 2021.