A Session with Outgoing Secretary John King Jr. on Student Activism

Payton Head was the '15-'16 Student Body President at the University Missouri. 

Thanks to the National Campus Leadership Council, I had the opportunity to have a dialogue with student leaders from around the nation, Secretary John King, and Deputy Undersecretary Dr. Kimberly Hunter-Reed of the U.S. Department of Education. This convening was a student voices session on student activism.

We were invited to share our experiences with student advocacy on our campuses in addition to providing ways in which we believe the department could be helpful in supporting our work at the federal level. We talked about the importance of engaging youth in the political process at a very early age in our education system. In addition to that, it is imperative that we are helping students understand that their voices are critical in public discourse at the national level, but more importantly at the local level where politics and policy have even more of an impact on the American experience around education.

From my own experiences leading the student body at the University of Missouri in the midst of demonstrations and protests, one of the major issues that was of concern to student activists at Mizzou and around the nation is the fact that information on marginalized identities and their role in the inception, building and success of our nation is not on the test. When students are taught that only one group is involved in making America and the world what it is today, it is easy to discriminate and disrespect others on the basis of race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and other characteristics of identity.

Secretary King informed us of the alarming yet very real issues plaguing our education system around preparing students for college. He stated that over 1.6 million students have a law enforcement official in their school but no guidance counselor. These statistics are very important to understanding the types of issues that are facing our generation and future generations as it relates to college access and degree attainment.

One of the major concerns that many of us shared with the secretary is the transition that is to come in the Department and how the secretary with less than a week in office would respond to the needs of those in the education system they serve with an administration coming in that has very different interests and ideas around education. Secretary King reassured us that he and his team will be more dedicated now more than ever to the work that needs to be done to make sure that students across our nation have access to a safe an inclusive education system after the administration’s time expires on January 20th.

As student leaders, it is important to know how we can hold the department accountable in the future. Secretary King let us know that for students it is important that we maintain our engagement, build coalitions, and understand that we have a decentralized education system at that national level that requires our attention, advocacy, and support at the state and local level. Secretary King also stated that it is important to realize that just as the problems within the system are intersectional the solutions are intersectional as well.

This conversation gave me hope for our future. While we are in uncharted waters as we approach January 20th, it is important to know that people who have been fighting for equity in our education system like Secretary King and his team will continue this fight. Now more than ever, young people must be engaged in the policy, knowledgeable of the systemic barriers that are a limit to success for many Americans, and be ready to fight for an equitable education for all. I’m thankful to Secretary King for his service and to the Department of Education under his leadership. Now the work begins.



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