Youth Organizing in the 2013 Election Campaign: Ensuring Our Place at the Policy-Making Table

Ashley Payano is a senior at Renaissance High School for Musical Theater and Technology at the Lehman Campus in the Bronx, a student activist at the Urban Youth Collaborative, and a board member of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.

As a current high school senior in the Bronx, all I know is education under the Michael Bloomberg administration. For the past twelve years, my education has been shaped and developed by severely underfunded schools, harsh discipline practices that disproportionately impact students of color, lack of arts education, co-locations and school closures, over-emphasis on standardized testing, and a pipeline to incarceration and unemployment instead of college and careers. For twelve years I was told it was my fault; that I failed the system.

Ashley Payano reflects on why the Urban Youth Collaborative wanted to help organize a large visioning process for the 2013 NYC mayoral race, what she thought about the A+ NYC bus tour, and why it's important for youth to be involved in school reform.

I arrived at my current high school as a transfer student my sophomore year with only five credits. Immediately I was placed in classes of a lower grade level and had no access to my guidance counselor or the supports necessary to get back on track. I spent the year chasing down my guidance counselor with hopes to be able to start my junior year with the credits necessary and a path to graduation and college enrollment. Unfortunately, I can literally count how many times I got the chance to meet with my guidance counselor that year: just once. I felt outraged because my struggle wasn’t just an isolated one. The lack of academic guidance and support for New York City students is a struggle my community, and communities that look like mine, know all too well. Again, we were told we failed the system.

But I knew better. The Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC) knew better. After twelve years of this, New York City needed to move in a different direction for its students. The 2013 mayoral election was that opportunity we had been waiting for, and we were ready to work to ensure that the next mayor knew our education priorities and would publicly commit to putting students at the center of his/her administration.

Too often the voices of youth are muted by elected officials, the media, and the voting process. Most of us are not of voting age and come from communities that don’t traditionally vote, or cannot vote. For this reason, we needed to make sure that we were at the decision-making table at all times – to ensure that our issues, our campaign demands, would be front and center. Fellow youth leaders sat in the steering committees of both A+ NYC and New Yorkers for Great Public Schools (NY-GPS), the two coalitions created to influence the mayoral election.*

We spent months researching and learning about all the Democratic candidates, where they stood on education, and what they have said and/or done around college readiness, school discipline and climate, and school closures. We met with candidates and their staffs about our Student Success Centers and restorative justice programs. We worked to make sure that ending the racial disparities in school discipline became a wedge issue for the election. For us, it was important to get the mayoral candidates to take a stand against the Bloomberg policies that impacted us the most, while still highlighting our solutions.

In November of 2012 I facilitated my first public event, our first Education Town Hall with the mayoral candidates. More than a thousand people flooded seats and aisles, including youth, educators, parents, and community members. I was honored and proud to be representing New York City students, to be representing UYC. This was the first of many public events we did to push the candidates to elevate our demands. Soon after, we began our PS 2013 community visioning process. My fellow student leaders helped develop the workshops we used to get feedback from New Yorkers, trained young people to be able to facilitate the workshops, and ran them for our local organizations. After all seventy-five workshops were done, I sat on the PS 2013 design team with Eric Perez, another UYC student leader. Together, we worked to gather all the ideas from the community and developed the content for the PS 2013 Bus – our interactive mobile education voting booth! We hit the streets of New York City asking New Yorkers to vote on their priorities, taking their votes, and developing the Education Road Map.

Throughout the entire process, we knew that UYC would not support an individual candidate, but rather would work to push all candidates to support our work and commit to our recommendations. And that is what we did. We stood with Bill Thompson around suspensions and arrests in schools, worked with Bill de Blasio around college readiness and ending discriminatory school discipline policies, worked with John Liu around guidance counseling and Student Success Centers, showed up with cameras at Anthony Weiner’s door to confront his harsh stance on student discipline, and stood with Christine Quinn as she launched her platform around policing in schools. Our role as youth was to pressure the mayoral candidates to publicly support more college and career readiness for Black and Latino students, to commit to our agenda, and to change the conversation in New York City around school discipline. And we did just that.

*Note: For more on these two coalitions, see Billy Easton’s article.