In April, the Columbia Political Review again kicked off its inaugural essay contest for high school students, who faced a question that we've all been grappling with - our place in politics.
Students were asked if protests continue to be the most effective tool for them to provoke political response, or if the place of students in politics should evolve.
We received answers from schools all over the world.
After reviewing entries by students from across the world, our Board finally made a decision. We evaluated our candidates on the basis of creativity, persuasiveness, and style. Our hope is that these essays have not only served as an exercise in reflection, but will also spark further discussion about democratic participation among students. Congratulations to the winners, and thank you to all who took the time to submit.
— Bani Sapra, Editor in Chief; Isabelle Harris, Publisher.
Politics does not exist in a vacuum. The very institution of politics operates on the differences in opinions across state borders and the national divisions that have taken place since then. Yet in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election and the events since then, the polarization that shapes our country has also prevented its progress. With protests over the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and LGBTQ rights, protests throughout history have served as an important unifying force between individuals and groups that share a common goal.
While the significance of protests remains, the fact is that their impact is limited. It is true that protests will always be political. The actions behind protests will always be political. When we look at the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, we see that the politics of memory is perpetuated in the stories we tell: the legacies of oppression in our society, the indiscriminate racial bias in the media, and the individual experiences of those who were persecuted because of the color of their skin. Protests in this sense generate public sympathy and bring these issues to the attention of the media.
Yet the fact is that the nature of students’ roles in politics cannot just be limited to protests- although protests are important, they serve as only a vehicle to social change. Rather, we must evaluate the roots of political change, which stem from the education we receive and the knowledge we obtain from it. Rewriting the narratives in our textbooks is in itself a form of protest and liberation, one that lasts longer than a seventeen-minute walkout against gun violence or a day-long Women’s March.
Our understanding of civil rights cannot just be limited to the dates of protests we learn about in our history textbooks. Rather, we must understand the very definition of civil rights as the precept that allows for all citizens--regardless of race, nationality, religion, gender, age, language, ability- to the same social and political freedoms allowed to any human being. This comes from shifting our perspectives on the politics of memory in our education.
Rather than teaching the basics of the Second Amendment and stopping there, it is necessary that we examine its significance in our political climate today, and the various perspectives surrounding it. Instead of teaching wars based on American involvement, we need to look at all the different names for them: Vietnam War (America), American War (Vietnam), Korean War (America), and Fatherland Liberation War (Korea). Giving new definitions to the politics of our history textbooks in turn shape our collective perception of the issues impacting political division in America today.
Protests act as a catalyst for discourse and dialogue, but they are not substitutes for it. Journalism and the media play an important role in determining which issues are covered more than others. The opinions conveyed in the media are especially relevant to the different stories we tell, and whether they are the product of polarization. Education provides a basis for debate, but the legislation that results from education is what informs the role of students in politics.
The underlying current in this is the significance of stories. Partisanship in America is at an all-time high, with one side always claiming superiority over the other. By including the different perspectives associated with these issues, we create a platform for the public to come to a mutual understanding. Yet it isn’t up to the public to give us those spaces for creating social change; it’s up to us to create those spaces ourselves. Protests are merely a way of enforcing the idea that a story matters. At the end of the day, it’s up to us as citizens and human beings to tell those stories, and ultimately claim a space for them.Through activism in the form of our textbooks, media, and conversations, we as students can provoke political response and effect the changes we want to see in our globalized society.
Our role in politics is affected by our understanding of it. Just like the experiences of each nation shapes the politics of memory, the experiences of each individual does as well. When we give the platform of American history to those who have been mistreated by it through the stories we write and the textbooks we teach, we give ourselves the social and political freedom to tell our own stories. We become our own heroes. We revolutionize our own conversations. We create our own spaces for liberation. We give a name to our politics, one story at a time.
Valerie Wu, Presentation High School.
On the night of March 24, my Instagram feed was familiar. Photos of friends with protest signs kept me scrolling for hours. Videos of massive crowds along Central Park West and their vitriolic chants against the National Rifle Association flooded my Snapchat. On the bus ride back from the capital, I watched political pundits applaud us as spearheads of change, yet our cutting
edge felt dull.
Just ten days earlier, my high school teachers stood in the hallways with suppressed smiles as hundreds of their students left the building. From the field where we convened, my principal could be seen observing the assembly with quiet pride. The extent of protest that day was that many, including myself, refused to hand in permission slips to walk out. For the purpose
of our message, a better reception was unimaginable. At schools in more conservative parts of the country, students who walked out did so at the risk of disdain from their peers or punishment handed out by their teachers. In this manner, the protests brought political loyalties to the surface, but only insofar as they pleased one half of the nation and incensed the other.
The contrasting reactions of teachers reflected responses from lawmakers; although none denied the significance of our activism, little substantive action followed. We set a precedent for our generation, yet we only amounted to the latest in a laundry list of demonstrations against government policies. From healthcare to immigration policy to sexual violence on campus, protests are the modus operandi of students and always have been. As a result, they have lost their potency. What seems revolutionary in the moment often translates to a field trip a week later. Politicians do not feel compelled to meet the demands of the public and the opposition grows belligerent.
When the first effort does not succeed, students typically attempt to provoke a reaction. We disparage authority, draw alarming historical parallels to our current political climate, and chant expletives at politicians. Yet the greatest development in protests may be the willingness of students to approach crisis with humor. At the demonstrations in which my generation has taken part, memes have been a constant. The application of Internet humor makes dissent less intimidating, while unifying the like-minded. It simultaneously degrades leaders in a way meant to inflame opponents. Inevitably, students have embraced a method that often promotes mutual antagonism, rather than cooperative progress.
At a time of urgent need for action, we as students must ask ourselves how we can use the Internet for collaboration. Each generation is gifted a distinguishing tool, but none have been so powerful as the Internet. If students care to be vanguards, we must not contribute to the deadlock in which the world has found itself. Instead, we have to assume the role left vacant for decades — we must be the link across the aisle. With the Internet, we are better equipped than any generation prior to do this. Perhaps success is found not in its blow, but its breadth.
Jade Lozada, High School of American Studies at Lehman College
When 20 million people across America tuned in to watch celebrities from the music industry take stage in the annual Grammy Awards they noticed a theme as I did. They watched as their favorite celebrities and musicians walked the red carpet adorned in black, each carrying a single white rose. A few tweets and reposts later, millions joined in support of the white rose, a symbol for a campaign against sexual misconduct and gender inequality. But it is not the first-time history has been exposed to the white rose. The symbolic power possessed by this fragile flower has moved politics time and time again. From as early as the 18th century, white roses symbolize purity. They represented weddings, innocence, sympathy and spirituality. In Nazi Germany, a peaceful intellectual resistance led by students who called themselves the White Rose, once again lit up the lamp of hope in a time of darkness. The meaning of a single rose has evolved tremendously over the years, and us students can draw a message from that evolution. If the symbolic value of something as traditional and fragile as a flower has the ability to transform, so can students' roles in politics, growing from that of simple protesters to that of political leaders and representatives.
Perhaps, those who feel the greatest constraints in the political sphere are students, especially high schoolers, who do not have the power to directly influence the government through their votes. 40% of the world’s population is composed of people under 18, and yet youth representation in the US government, one of the largest of its kind, is nonexistent. Society cannot boast about democratic equality when young adults are forced to follow the same laws as adults with the same consequences and have no say in them. They say the youth are our tomorrow, but why wait until tomorrow? Our today presents us with issues that threaten to disrupt lives all around the world today. Parties may not agree over policies within Capitol Hill, and religions or cultures may not overcome institutional barriers, but students are well-equipped to make a difference. In fact, a study that examined intelligence in succeeding generations of families found that millennials display an increase in IQ and knowledge. The Flynn Effect, as their findings are known, coupled with exposure to social media and current events, have made students ideal to participate in the democratic processes that define the future of countless lives.
The political environment of today’s world calls on youth activism through protests. The right to assemble and petition the government offers students the power to enable change. However, that alone doesn’t cut it. Though protests make people politically active, academic studies have shown that they do little to actually enable change in policy makers. The answer lies in instead of just letting students protest for change, the political world should seek to involve students in these
political processes, making them the mechanisms of change.
This idea is not unrealistic. In fact, four Kansas teens showed it was possible. They displayed that students have a role in politics, and the nature of that role is indefinitely evolving. When these four high schoolers found a loophole in the system and ran for state elections, they forced the world to think twice about the role of a student. They didn’t win but they promoted an idea that was no different from what the White Rose did during a time when challenging Hitler was unrealistic. When a Saudi teenager created the first headscarf emoji, she caused a political stir and introduced an idea she felt was so necessary to her world. Much like the white rose, their ideas were simple yet powerful. They pushed the constraining boundaries of a student’s role in politics.
Politics has been created as an ever-evolving voice. With more young people in the world today than ever before, the potential for change is perhaps the greatest power at the fingertips of the youth. Power waiting to be unleashed. Today’s world offers us so many options, tools and resources and an even more diverse audience. Students with passion and guidance have shown us time and time again how they have challenged their role in the political world. Students have flirted with risks, challenged all traditional notions, moved people and shaped the world. If a simple white rose can cause thousands of people to stir, then the potential of a student willing to occupy a political role will be unimaginable.
Hiba Jamil, Noor UI Iman School
One demonstration that I am very conscious of is the “Umbrella Revolution”, a three-month protest that began in Hong Kong, September 2014. The student-led organizations known as “Hong Kong Federation of Students" (HKFS) and “Scholarism”, led by an undergraduate Joshua Wong, were the main driving forces in the movement. It caught international attention and drew concern, since the previous mass demonstration against the Beijing government ended up in bloodshed: the infamous Tiananmen Massacre. Interestingly, umbrella was also employed by Hong Kong demonstrators who backed the students in Tiananmen protest in Beijing as emblem of non-violent civil disobedience in 1989. The demonstrators during the Umbrella Revolution decried Beijing's prescription of Hong Kong’s chief executive and ultimately asked for a substantive democracy. Typical of Beijing government, no actual political response was elicited, and the student leaders were prosecuted and jailed in 2017 – three years after the demonstration.
From a utilitarian perspective, the Umbrella Revolution failed: no policy was forged in response to it, and some condemned it for causing massive traffic and halting schools. Despite this, however, it greatly influenced public opinion and inspired more dissident voices to speak out; Demonstrations and condemnations against Beijing's interference and persecution of liberal activists were only fiercer after the student leaders’ imprisonment. Similarly, the Tiananmen Protest hardly provoked
any discernible trend for liberalization in China, but its posthumous influence has never ceased. One of its legacies is the Memorial of June 4th held annually in Hong Kong Victoria Park, where ten to hundred thousand of people would convene to commemorate the national shame and victims’ quest for liberty.
Perhaps the discussion of protest differs in each context. In a substantive democracy, it may be spoken of by considering its utility; however, in an authoritarian regime, its sheer existence is all what’s essential. But in both cases, protesting shouldn’t be overemphasized as a tool for determining government’s policymaking; to my meagre knowledge, the purpose of protest is to
deliver sentiments, and it appeals to humanity as a whole rather than merely to governments. Its effect on the state should be gradual, secondary, and accumulative.
Think about the nascence of democracy. We can hardly presume that everyone is virtuous enough to establish a pure democracy, or an anarchist utopia – either in the form of mob democracy or despotism would emerge. Therefore, we empower a collective body, a delegate, to enforce a social contract.
One of the duties of the state, is to moderate, or even arbitrate the inputs of all its citizens to preempt tyranny of the majority. Virtues and vices, for and against are equally embedded in this democratic contract with government, rendering inefficiency and gridlock inevitable in its course. This also applies to public opinion. Unison in public opinion, though efficient, usually leads to horrendous ramifications associated with Fascism. Polarization, on the other hand, compromises efficiency in
order to redress the imprudence and inadequacy of opposing voices. Though there is no such thing as an infallible government, but democracy, which is all about compromises and checks and balances, can do no more than cherishing protest as a tradition and one facet the society reflects.
Protests are not legislative forces, so it is not essential to speak of their utility in politics. When the voices of neglected minorities and victims of immorality and injustice are lifted, they appeal to the public opinion, to the sum of common sense and morality of everyone in the nation. Whether they manifest their struggle in the government’s policymaking doesn’t necessarily matter: the state is merely auxiliary to, and preceded by, the opinion and knowledge of the nation; voices that utter the truth of society are superior than, and do not need to seek acknowledgement from, the government.
As students, protesting against what we deem wrong is our civil duty as long as we have independently evaluated its full course and purpose. Nonetheless, our appeal should not be limited to only one form of expression. With the prerequisite that we have leveraged our education to arm ourselves with prudence in judgement, and learned to appreciate others’ perspectives and acknowledge the shortcomings of our own, we shall place the duty of moral and intellectual beings before the duty of citizens of an artificial state. Such duty is the dissemination of knowledge and prudence in society through writing and discourse. Intercourse of ideas deprives individuals of prejudiced pre-conceptions, and bolsters the intellectual foundation of the society as a whole. When the society evolves with intellectuality, the state that derives from the society evolves accordingly.
Let me conclude with one remark from Emerson, “the form of government which prevails, is what the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it.” Therefore, our role as student-citizens, is not to bargain with the state, but to change it by refining what it derives from.
Yining Yan, Shenzhen College of International Education
On March 14, hundreds of students at my high school walked out of class to protest legislative inaction on gun violence, joining thousands of their peers across the nation. As one of the organizers of the action, I felt an immense sense of pride as I watched my classmates congregate to listen to speeches, sign petitions, and register to vote. It was, without a doubt, a successful student-led demonstration, characterized by palpable energy and optimism. But lately, as students exercise their constitutional right to free speech and assembly on issues ranging from gun violence to immigration crackdowns, the efficacy of protest as a vehicle for change has come under serious question.
Some maintain that, in a social media age, attending a protest constitutes nothing more than performative virtue signaling — a cheap opportunity to post a photo demonstrating our “wokeness” on Instagram, nestled between neatly-cropped shots of lattes and avocado toast. Critics and cynics both agree that protests are disruptive and futile. Proponents of elite dominance even doubt the ability of average people, including students, to have any influence on policy whatsoever. Still others paint protests as divisive and polarizing, prone to escalating tensions and devolving into unproductive ideological banter.
My high school’s walkout was certainly not immune to this criticism — some alleged that their classmates had only participated in order to avoid class. One student asserted that, because the organizers had worked with administration to communicate their goals for the event, it had essentially become watered-down and ineffective. But in spite of these criticisms, protests ultimately remain an effective tool for student activists to create political change.
First off, while a protest is sometimes understood to be at odds with other, less visible forms of political activism such as phone banking or canvassing, the former often buttresses the latter. At protests, people sign up for advocacy organizations, register to vote, and learn of additional (and perhaps more effective) ways to get involved — even after they return home and put away
their signs. Case in point: at my high school’s walkout, numerous students pre-registered or registered to vote, setting themselves on track to become lifelong active participants in our democracy.
Without such a visible mass-action, it is possible that fewer students would have felt compelled to take this vital step. So for every participant who attends a protest to virtue signal or cut class, there are others who are genuinely impacted and energized. Additionally, while picketing a government building or chanting slogans alone may not always result in change, protests are important manifestations of political sentiment. From the suffragettes’ hunger strikes in the 1910s to the modern Women’s March, protests constitute historical milestones in the grand arc of a social movement. As previously mentioned,
demonstrations inspire subsequent advocacy efforts; however, they also serve as the public face and representation of earlier efforts — decades before the 1963 March on Washington, NAACP lawyers had been fighting tirelessly against Jim Crow through the court system. Protests complement and build on these behind-the-scenes efforts, bringing them into the public
Finally, while protests may result in polarization, they can also actually bring people together. Protests are often exercises in coalition-building and empathy. In the case of my school’s walkout, administration, staff, and students interacted through constructive conversations and planning meetings, setting a positive precedent for future student political action at school. The Women’s March, despite criticisms of its lack of intersectionality, is relatively inclusive and has either empowered or supported the record-breaking number of women running for office this year — a group that includes trans women and women of color. And for every person that is “turned off” by a protest, there are those who find themselves beginning to emphasize with, say, immigrants demanding an end to deportations, or black communities mourning loved ones lost to police brutality. After all, a major goal of protests — as a form of collective action — is to create solidarity among people and communities.
Furthermore, the notion that protests have only recently escalated political polarization — an idea insinuated in Katherine Mangu-Ward’s New York Times op-ed — is highly revisionist. The protests of the Civil Rights Movement were polarizing as well; polarization is inevitable any time a group of people voices their political opinions (or, in the case of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter, simply demands that their humanity be recognized). Equally fallacious is the author’s dismissal of protests resulting in “no substantive policy change”; any seasoned activist knows that results are never immediate, and this year’s midterm elections have yet to occur.
There may be a day in the future where protests cease to hold the potential to effect change. But as matters of critical political significance continue to unfold around us, they remain just as important as ever.
Brandon Shi, Dougherty Valley High School