On Friday, January 20, 2017, at precisely 11:08 a.m., a thousand students from over eight public, charter, and private high-schools in Providence, Rhode Island, walked out of their classrooms, and poured into the streets for a unified march to the State House. They rose to action to show their solidarity for those they felt were endangered, and at the least, would not be well represented or cared for under the new presidency. (I still refuse to say his name.)
When plans for the march were first announced, there was concern from some high schools students because the march fell on a day of mid-term examinations. For about a week leading up to the walkout, there were conflicting reports of whether students who participated would be penalized or not, or given zeros on their exams. I have two daughters, a freshman and a junior at Classical High School. They wanted to march, but were concerned about missing their exams. I knew I wanted them to want to march, but that it wasn’t my decision. We talked about the fact that making decisions to stand up for something might mean you put yourself at risk, make yourself uncomfortable, because the people you care about who are being oppressed are often at risk, and live uncomfortably, and don’t have the luxury to choose to forget about what it means to be Black, or Muslim, or an immigrant, or gay or trans, and if it means you sacrifice something to stand up, then maybe that’s what you should do, and not worry about the zeros. In the midst of the girls deciding, with them still leaning strongly toward marching if they knew they wouldn’t get zeros on their mid-terms, an announcement came from the school saying that exams would be postponed to the following week. The students were also unofficially told they would not be penalized otherwise for walking out. With that in mind, my daughters decided to march, and I know many other students were also relieved to know there would be no repercussion for marching. My daughters and I realized, too, the place our white skin privilege played in how the girls’ decision was made.
The Walk-Out was organized by the Providence Student Union (PSU), a group of six high schools whose mission is to develop student power to ensure that young people have a say in their education. First formed at Hope High School in 2010, the Union is working all the time on issues important to the young people involved, and has had notable impact, including in 2014, the approval of Bill H-8363, a three-year moratorium on the misuse of the NECAP exam as a high-stakes graduation requirement, and this year, a successful call to develop and implement Ethnic Studies classes into the Providence Public School curriculum. I could not have been more impressed or inspired by the work PSU did to organize and carry out the march, especially when I think about my high school years spent smoking cigarettes in the Girls’ Room, and figuring out ways to sneak into the dance club. The non-profit organization, Youth In Action co-hosted the Walk-Out.
After hearing PSU Executive Director, Zack Mezera’s call for adult ally volunteers to guide and keep students safe during the Walk-Out, at the Resist Hate RI meeting , I decided I wanted to help and was glad it would be on my day off from work, since I work at a hospital, and scheduling is rigid. My girls, Leni, 17, and Darla, 14, were okay with that, and I assured them I wouldn’t be annoying, and get too close to them. This was their thing, after all. When I arrived about twenty minutes before the march was to start, lead adult allies called out instructions to the twenty or so of us standing across from Classical High, some parents, some activists, or mere supporters of the students: “Spread yourselves out alongside the students. Let the students lead the march, this is their event, not ours. Is anyone a medic? Raise your hands, medics…” The official volunteers, of which I was not one, wearing orange arm bands, began to space themselves out in front of Classical and Central High along Westminster Street. My body began to tingle, and I could only imagine the excitement and adrenalin rush felt by all the students as they checked their phones or classroom clocks, waiting for 11:08 to come, the time signifying the date of the fated election, the time to rise up from their seats, walk out, and for many have their first experience in this kind of civic engagement.
11:08. Shouts and cheers abounded. Students poured onto the sidewalk, and the other volunteers and I crossed to the school side of the street. Right away my daughter Leni’s friends called out to me. I waved enthusiastically as I recorded them with my phone camera. The mood was exhilarating. Hundreds of students began their march across the highway and through downtown to the State House. Many carried signs saying Fix Our Future, NO, and the couldn’t be more direct, F*ck Trump, which I saw being printed the night before at an AS220 Community Printmaking event. There were signs written in Spanish, and banners in the front of the march. One featured a beautiful image of a painted butterfly with the words Migration Is Beautiful, and another with No Human Being Is Illegal. There were young people of all races, ethnicities, sexual orientation and gender identities, all walking together, with youth of color as march leaders carrying megaphones, the majority of them young women with powerful voices. The What Cheer? Brigade street band provided the underlying beat for all to march along to. Young leaders halted the march at points to come together, experience the moment, and to chant. The march was so organized there was a printed sheet of chants distributed to follow along to, and a sheet listing steps to take to help PSU fight for a Student Bill of Rights, call Mayor Elorza to help pass the Community Safety Act, an Act to protect immigrants, youth, and keep police accountable to the people, and to find out who your elected officials are to call for the change you want to make. The sheet also contained the names and addresses of the many wonderful, local youth organizations we are lucky to have here in Providence, including Youth In Action, New Urban Arts, Youth Pride, Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), and Young Voices. Everything flowed positively, peacefully, energetically.
I finally spotted my younger daughter Darla as we neared the foot of the State House, but she was at enough of a distance that I didn’t want to shout out to her, especially since she is the one nowadays who wants to forge her independence from me, which is a nice way for me to say to myself, that she doesn’t want me embarrassing her in front of her friends. In all seriousness though, as I walked up the steps and came upon the expansive brick landing where I could finally see the students who converged there from all over the city–from The Met School, Times Squared Academy, Hope High, Central, Classical, Alvarez,Village Green, Sophia Academy, Lincoln School, Moses Brown, Paul Cuffee, and Wheeler, (forgive me if I’ve left any school out)–I nearly cried at the sight of over 1,000 of our city’s students completely filling the stone steps of our Capitol Building. They stood there, a sea of smiles, in unity, holding their signs with pride, raising their fists in the air, emboldened.
Youth speakers spoke with great poise, determination, intellect, and passion about their fears for themselves, their fellow students, families, and friends under this new administration and smartly spoke of strategies and actions we must all take to rise up, resist, and make changes for a better America for all of us. Mostly young women of color, and several young men of color spoke, including Latifat Odetunde and Musah Sesay, both from Classical High and members of PSU, which for me was wonderful to see, as inclusion, noticing it’s lack, and learning how to de-center whiteness is vitally important to me. Initially it was difficult to hear for the majority adult crowd that had gathered around the bottom of the steps, and I thought wouldn’t it be nice if the State House had provided sound equipment for them to be heard. But, creativity and ingenuity ensued, and a double megaphone system, and later, a “human echo megaphone” of the crowd repeating each line a speaker said, helped us all hear the important words these students had to say.
I am proud of all the students, and thank the Providence Student Union and Youth In Action for all of the work they did to organize and carry out the Walk-Out, and I am proud of my daughters. A week before the Walk-Out, when I asked them what they were marching for, they both said to support their friends most likely to be adversely affected by the agenda of the new President. A friend of mine reminded me that my daughters, who by virtue of being female, and Jewish, and who come from Native American lineage on their Dad’s side of the family, are also targets of the Administration.
We are all connected, and we all need to do the right thing when it comes to ensuring the liberty and safety of all of our fellow Americans. We might not be able to be involved with every cause that has meaning to us at the level we wish we could, and street demonstrations aren’t for everyone, but there are many ways to get involved, and ways to find the right way for you to get in where you fit in. I have only the highest praises for the Providence Student Walk Out, and thank you all for the inspiration you bestowed upon me, and the tingle in my body that continues to resonate, and the memory and pride that lingers, even more so for me, than the local Women’s March has, which took place the very next day, and had five times as many people attend.