Skip to main content

Youth Self-Advocacy and Empowerment: “Co-owning Our Future” Student Conversation Recap

High school students share thoughts and views on what youth empowerment and leadership looks like during our #CenteringStudentVoices: “Co-owning Our Future” live discussion.

Brea and high school students conversing during live March discussion

By Cece Zhou

March 16, 2021

“It’s very rare for a student to be given an opportunity like this one…Letting students know that there are opportunities to [share their] voice, students believe they can make change.”

Jaret Camargo
Shortridge High School

It’s been one year since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning across Indianapolis schools, widening inequities and bringing many into clearer view than ever before. Since then, many schools, school systems, organizations, and institutions have come together to pursue meaningful efforts that restructure and define what needs to change for all students to receive an excellent and equitable education.

At Teach For America Indianapolis (TFA Indy), we firmly believe in students having a seat at the table on these, and all, issues that impact them. Alongside key community partners who are also prioritizing efforts to empower students, we are honored to engage students in our #CenteringStudentVoices web series, which seeks to elevate their voices and hold space for the community, elected officials, and other stakeholders to hear directly from them.

Continuing the #CenteringStudentVoices conversation from February, our March discussion with high school seniors Jaret Camargo (Shortridge High School), DeAnthony Carter (Purdue Polytechnic High School), and Clarke Macdonald (Purdue Polytechnic High School) explored the ways they and their peers felt empowered to lead in their schools and communities. Jaret, DeAnthony, and Clarke lifted up words of wisdom for both peers and adults and identified tangible steps to disrupt the imbalance of student-adult representation in decision-making.

Here are three things we heard from the students:

1. E-learning has collapsed communication and socialization. The virtual platform has disempowered some students and propelled increased self-advocacy and cross-connection for others.

In response to our opening of “how are you feeling?” Clarke discussed his current experience – a hybrid in-person/e-learning model at Purdue Polytechnic. “I’m disappointed that the majority of students are virtual. It’s not where we’re meant to be…Person to person has precedence and nuance to it, and nonverbal communication and cues. There’s so much communication that’s missed out on.” He later also pointed to how the online experience removes the social aspect of school, which is “one of the more worthwhile aspects.” 

Jaret, while attending Shortridge High School, agreed with similar experiences and feelings. “The online platform is very stressful without one-on-ones with teachers, unless we make an appointment to meet up with them.”

On the other hand, DeAnthony pointed out how the additional challenge of a virtual platform has motivated him to take a more self-advocating approach and “prepared me for college level learning in terms of self-advocating for something I’m struggling with. Coming to your friends and asking for help. Learning is a team effort.”

2. Youths feel that they're treated more like numbers and statistics, and less like human beings. We must provide more ways for students to share their voice and perspective to affect change on the issues that impact them.

The theme of humanity was brought up several times throughout the conversation. 

“We’re more than test numbers; we’re more than just statistics. We’re people. We’re humans,” shared DeAnthony, emphasizing how students must have more of a say in education decision-making. “We’re the ones receiving the education. We should have more of a say that we do currently.”

Jaret pointed to this concept with regards to how he didn’t feel he had agency to own his own learning and school experience up until recently, when his teacher Sarah TeKolste connected him to opportunities through RISE Indy and TFA Indy to share his voice. “I was one of those people that thought we were numbers on a spreadsheet rather than just people. I felt that I was just a number amongst thousands of other students.”

Now that he’s participated in experiences that gave him the platform to discuss student issues and possible resolutions, he’s gained “a lot of confidence that we students can change what [education] looks like.”

3. Education deeply intersects with other fields and sectors – and we (adults and youth both) must strive for youth voice to be represented and reflected in all key decision-making spaces in areas like mental health and local politics.

When asked about what issues need more student perspective, the students offered up several critical areas within and outside of education that they see as priority:

Mental health

Jaret: “We’re set to take these standardized tests and rigorous courses…sometimes you just get lost in all of those assignments and tasks, and they start piling up...A lot of students’ grades dropped because of all the stress of COVID.

"Mental health and education go hand in hand. We need to check on students more often – and on teachers. I know a lot of teachers are struggling through the pandemic as well.”

Enforced school policies, like dress code

DeAnthony: “Dress code is a very important part of the learning experiences. It makes learning a lot more memorable and easier.”

Standardized testing

DeAnthony: “It can be very stressful when you’re in those environments (ACT, SAT, ISTEP). All of those high-level tests that can determine if you graduate or go to college. It can really stress you out and take your mind off the whole goal of the test – which is to take you to the next level."


Clarke: “Students should be more outspoken on political issues and current affairs. By doing so, you learn a lot more about a topic. It reaches a lot of things in our lives.

“Speech is not as valued as it used to be, which is a travesty.” 


Watch the full conversation on Facebook, or stream the audio. What are your biggest takeaways from the students? Share them with us.