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Boston high-schoolers stage anti-Trump walkout. A lesson in democracy?

Concerned about their future under a Trump administration, high school students walked out of classes Monday afternoon and marched to the doorsteps of their elected officials.

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    The walkout's organizers are calling upon city and state officials to affirm and protect Muslims, undocumented immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people in the face of what they see as alarming rhetoric, damaging policy proposals, and racist advisers associated with Mr. Trump's campaign and transition into the White House.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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High school students from across Boston walked out of class Monday afternoon as part of a demonstration in which they called upon local, state, and federal authorities to protect them and underrepresented groups from US President-elect Donald Trump.

Students marched to Beacon Hill and insisted, unsuccessfully, that they be permitted to deliver their list of demands to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who has said he voted neither for Mr. Trump nor anyone else running for president in last month's election. Although some treated the walkout as an opportunity to cut class under the guise of civic engagement, others say their march was a sincere effort to voice real concerns.

"I'm black and Muslim, so I'm scared for me and my mom and my family and all the Muslim people, too," Yusuf Jama, a 16-year-old freshman at Roxbury Preparatory High School, tells The Christian Science Monitor while standing on the third floor of the State House. He and classmates pleaded with gubernatorial staffers for a meeting, but the staffers steadfastly denied the request, assuring the students that their message would be delivered to Gov. Baker.

By going directly to their elected officials, the students – most of them too young to vote in 2016, but expecting to gain eligibility by 2020 – had hoped to convey the gravity of their concerns and persuade the governor (as well as, separately, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat) to actively oppose the incoming Trump administration by guaranteeing sanctuary to illegal immigrants, rejecting outright any proposed Muslim registry, and reassuring women and LGBT Americans that their rights will be protected.

Even if the exercise seems quixotic, some say the very act of reaching for such goals could be worthwhile.

Christopher Martell, a clinical assistant professor in the Boston University School of Education who focuses on social studies and teacher education, says the learning opportunities that will stem from the walkout could offset the detriments of lost classroom time.

"Obviously as teachers and educators we can't advocate for disrupting the school day," Dr. Martell tells the Monitor. "As a civics teacher, though, if there were to be a disruption to the school day, I think this is for a noble goal of expressing concerns that the students have."

Gabriela Pereira, a 16-year-old South Boston High School student and co-organizer of the walkout, said Monday's events were designed to ensure that the public at large cannot simply ignore the perspectives of American youth.

"Just because we can't vote doesn't mean our voice doesn't matter," she told The Boston Globe.

More than 800 people had indicated on a Facebook page managed by Ms. Pereira and others, as of Tuesday morning, that they had participated in the demonstration, though the group that converged on Boston Common at 2 p.m. was perhaps half that size, counting college and university students.

Adalberto "Gio" Bonilla, a 17-year-old sophomore at Fenway High School, says he and fellow Latinos worry that their community will suffer under the Trump administration because of the president-elect's views on immigration.

"Many families come and hope for the best in America, and they try to get the best for their children so they can have a better future and their grandkids can have a better future, but now they can't have that because there's a man in office who feels immigrants are inferior," Mr. Bonilla tells the Monitor while listening to speakers and chants on Boston Common, with fellow demonstrators touting a variety of liberal and libertarian causes.

Bonilla says he has never personally met a Trump supporter, but that he looks forward to any chance to listen and understand someone whose experience differs from his own.

"I would hope to have a decent conversation with one in order to hear both sides of the story," Bonilla says. "Everybody is entitled to their opinion, and sometimes you have to hear somebody else's opinion to see where they're coming from and see how they were brought up."

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), said such post-election demonstrations by high schoolers signal a changing America: just as younger voters were more likely to back Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, so too are future voters less inclined to accept many of the ideas Trump has promoted because they are more comfortable living in a multicultural society.

"Young people of today are much more diverse than the young people of yesteryear," Ms. Kawashima-Ginsberg told NBC News, noting that growing up alongside someone who is openly LGBT or an immigrant is more common today than it was when their parents were young.

In staging a walkout, Boston high-schoolers are following their peers in big cities across the country who were stunned by Trump's upset victory nearly one month ago. The day after the election, students walked out in Santa Barbara, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; Phoenix, Ariz., and elsewhere. High school student protests continued the following week, including in Los Angeles and Silver Springs, Md., representing just a portion of those demonstrations that erupted in major US cities following the election.

High school (and college) students stage a walkout and rally against President-elect Trump on Boston Common on Dec. 5 in Boston. Melanie Stetson Freeman/ Staff

And students here are themselves familiar with the art of a high school walkout, as the tactic had been used two times prior this year in furtherance of another cause – once in March and once in May, calling for an increase in school funding – with many of the same students organizing each event, as the Globe reported.

Boston Public Schools (BPS) Supt. Tommy Chang urged students in a video message published Sunday on Twitter to refrain from participating in Monday's walkout.

"I want you to know that your voice matters. I encourage you to use that voice, and I encourage you to use that voice on campus," Superintendent Chang said, encouraging students to discuss their concerns with peers and adults at school, instead of taking to the streets as planned.

"There is a time and place for these conversations to happen, and peaceful advocacy for what you care about is important, but not during learning time," Chang added.

In an automated phone call to homes of students and staff members, administrators warned that any students who participate in the walkout will be marked absent for the classes they miss, and their families will be automatically notified, as The Boston Herald reported.

Some students from non-BPS high schools said they expected to be suspended for cutting class.

Martell, who is himself a BPS parent who received an automated call about the walkout, says he hopes the students will learn from each other, their parents, and their teachers in the days following Monday's march – and that they will continue to mobilize beyond mere demonstrations by learning to "use all the other levers of democracy" to make their perspectives known.

"Maybe they form student-based groups to really lobby the government based on the issues that concern them or start writing editorials in the local papers," Martell says, suggesting letter-writing campaigns, in-person meetings with state and federal officials, and even other forms of peaceful protest as viable options.

The key, if this demonstration is to become a lesson plan for the future, is for students to challenge society and be challenged by it in a way that bursts ideological bubbles, Martell says.

"We're really not talking to each other, and perhaps a protest like this at least puts on the radar that people of different political views should be engaging in civil activism," he says, "and then perhaps the next step is going to be dialogue."

 
 
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