May 10 — 4:00 pm, 2011

Reframing youth and violence

This guest blog post comes from Jerusha Conner and Sonia M. Rosen.


The Inquirer’s investigative series “Assault on Learning” has painted a chilling portrait of Philadelphia’s youth. They have been cast as unstable, uncontrollable, animalistic, and menacing.

The youth portrayed in the series are not, however, the Philadelphia youth we know. Over the past two years as part of two separate research projects, we have spent countless hours interviewing, interacting with, and watching in action scores of Philadelphia students who have become members of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU).

PSU is a youth-led school reform organization that supports young people in learning to think critically about their schools and advocating for change. Most of PSU’s members attend neighborhood schools, which have routinely failed to offer them the engaging and rigorous curriculum they want and deserve. Like their peers across Philadelphia’s public schools, many of them shoulder unimaginable burdens in their personal lives, in addition to contending with the hardships of urban poverty. As is common in under-resourced schools, prior to their participation in PSU, many members felt disengaged from school, struggling with chronic absenteeism, disciplinary problems, and poor grades.

Despite the formidable odds stacked against them, these youth are kind and funny, imaginative and hopeful, curious and deeply intelligent. They welcome newcomers to the organization with warm hugs. They support and train one another to:

  • engage in rigorous analysis of the conditions they face in their schools;
  • work together to generate new knowledge and ideas about entrenched, systemic problems; and
  • stand up and speak out for what they believe in at various public forums, including School Reform Commission meetings.

Rather than simply voice complaints, the youth of PSU propose creative solutions and offer well-researched alternatives.

Our research findings demonstrate that PSU has created an environment that promotes positive engagement in civic life through leadership development and the provision of key academic and emotional supports for youth. PSU shows us that when youth who feel disengaged from school or community life have the chance to join with other young people to take concrete action to change problems in their communities, they become productive citizens.

PSU’s answer to the violence in the schools, so vividly and frighteningly portrayed in the Inquirer series, is a case in point. In 2009, PSU initiated the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools (CNS) in response to media coverage of the violent attacks at South Philadelphia High School and teen flash mobs throughout the city.

Over the last year, CNS has grown to include nine youth organizations, representing one of the broadest-based youth-led coalitions ever in Philadelphia. Guided by the teachings of Baker, Gandhi, and King, CNS defines violence as any action that causes harm to an individual. Using a systems-level analysis, it argues that interpersonal violence is rooted in structural violence, such as the under-funding of schools and a “curriculum that trains students to be test-takers rather than critical thinkers.” CNS unveiled a four-point platform, which addresses student voice in:

  • decision-making,
  • discipline,
  • student supports and services, and
  • engagement.

The Campaign for Nonviolent Schools was kicked off with a flash mob in Rittenhouse Square in which the students took a pledge to reject violence in all of its forms, identify the root causes of violence, and stand up against injustice,” and it has included youth-led trainings and non-violence advocacy. On March 20, CNS organized a march to protest a proposed state budget, which drastically cuts education funding while increasing funding for prisons. Over 1,500 people participated in this nonviolent march, demonstrating that the best hope for meaningful school reform in Philadelphia lies in recognizing the leadership and commitment of these immensely capable, talented, and caring youth.

As we have learned from PSU’s youth, if we want to create safe spaces for students and staff in Philadelphia’s schools, we must fundamentally alter how we view young people. We need to see them for the potential they have to be productive, positive citizens and give them real opportunities to take action in their communities. We must create learning environments that will allow them to thrive. And, most importantly, we need to listen to Philadelphia’s youth and follow their leadership on the issues that impact their lives.

Jerusha Conner is an assistant professor of Education at Villanova University. Her research focuses on student voice in school reform an education policy. Sonia M. Rosen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.  Her research examines youth identity development and youth activism.


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