On March 7th, 2016, over 1,000 Boston Public School students walked out of their classes and into the streets to protest budget cuts that Mayor Martin Walsh had proposed to Boston Public Schools. These budget cuts were an estimated 10-12 million dollars, and would cut everything from extra-curriculars to regular classes, depending on the school. The walkout was organized and lead entirely by students, and was spread, with simple instructions, throughout Twitter and other social media, using the hashtag #bpswalkout.
This was an instance of successful disruption and youth lead organizing (as Mayor Walsh ended up granting a reprieve following the walkout), and we felt the All Ages issue would be incomplete without coverage of the action. We interviewed two juniors at Boston Latin School, a magnet school nestled in Boston’s hospital district and adjacent to colleges like MassArt, Northeastern, and Wentworth.
Liana + Jacob: Hi! Could you give us some context for this walkout that you participated in? Were you aware of the budget cuts before you were aware of the protest was going to happen, or did you find about them through the walkout being publicized on social media?
Isabel Kain: I was completely out of the loop for the entire planning process; in fact, I only learned about it the day Friday before the protest, and even then it was only through word-of-mouth.
Ethan Loranger: I was quite aware of the budget cuts prior to hearing about the walkout. I had been very outspoken about my disappointment with the cuts. When I heard about the walkout I was very happy to hear that other students were standing up and rallying together against them.
How was the protest organized and how did you find out about it?
EL: The protest was organized mainly by word of mouth and social media. I initially learned about it from a friend whose father was involved in planning the walkout. Right after I learned about it I wanted to try and get many more students from my school to participate. That night I made a post in the BLS Class of 2017 Facebook group to try and get the word out to others. That helped spawn a conversation that spread throughout my school. Then on the Friday before the walkout, the administration made an announcement about it which helped to spread the event to the entire school.
I know that Boston Latin is a magnet school. Do you think that this affected how many people did and did not participate in the walkout, as opposed to the amount of people that may have participated from non-magnet/charter public schools?
IK: I do believe our status as a magnet school affected turnout. As a historical and relatively prestigious institution, we are not often short of resources. Many among our student body thus felt that the issue at hand didn't affect them: we would have lost seven faculty positions, which would have significantly impacted next year's academic landscape, yet there was a palpable apathy when discussing the budget cuts. This sense of distance was evident even at the protest: kids from the schools that were getting hit the hardest, the ones that were losing entire courses or even entire departments, were the ones displaying the most passion, leading chants and screaming tirelessly into the megaphones, while I counted only one BLS student who took an active role during the event.
EL: I do not think that the status of BLS as a magnet school had much of an impact on how many people participated.
What made you decide to get involved? Have you been involved in any kind of grassroots activism before this?
IK: I was involved in a lawsuit of the MassDEP for failing to adequately protect the environment by curbing emissions; that effort began two years ago, and while I have recently disengaged from the project, the effort is ongoing. I decided to get involved because I believe deeply in the importance of quality education. That means a full range of course options, a full teaching staff, enough materials, functioning facilities, not just putting kids through an automated system. The high school experience is especially valuable, and I find it deplorable that our city would even consider compromising it in favor of anything else. I'm a musician, and I've been playing flute and clarinet with several school bands since I came to BLS. The music department has had an enormous impact on my development as a person, and as a musician, and the possibility of it being downsized (or even cut) was one thing that motivated me to engage in the protest. Arts programs are necessary for complete, student-centered education, and yet they are often the first departments to suffer in the face of budget cuts.
EL: I decided to get involved because I have a great deal of frustration with the education system and the challenges in my school. Although we are seen as one of the most prestigious public high schools in the country, there are a lot of issues with our school. I was angered about the budget cuts because the teachers that would be losing their jobs are many of the young, new, exciting teachers. Also other schools, who do not have as much as BLS does, would have been largely impacted by the cuts. This was deeply upsetting and I knew we, as students of BLS, which is viewed as the best high school in the city, had to stand with other schools and fight for our funding. I had not been involved in grassroots activism before but I had always wanted to be, so it was a great opportunity to participate.
Do you think there was a particular attitude from the teachers towards students just getting up and leaving to participate in this action? Did most students at your school participate in the walkout?
IK: More students than I had hoped ended up participating, and most of those who stayed behind cited academic reasons, which I respect. Our administration was shockingly facilitative (though in light of recent criticism of not listening to the needs of their student body, their sensitivity shouldn't come as a surprise): the Friday before the walkout, out headmaster came on the PA and ran over our options for participating in the walkout without breaking school policies; many people were disgruntled with even that, though I understand the liability concerns that could be raised by having students unaccounted for. The teachers were either bemused by the entire production or appreciative and encouraging; I personally didn't encounter any disapproval from our administration.
EL: The administration at our school did not allow students to leave unless they brought a signed note from their parent saying they could leave. We were told that we would receive punishment if we left without a note. Students were unwilling to, as large groups, walkout but a decent number of kids brought in notes and participated.
What would you say the goal of the protest was, and do you feel you achieved it? I know that following the protest, Mayor Walsh declared a reprieve on the budget cuts. Do you feel that you helped to make this happen?
IK: The goal of the protest was to bring attention to the budget cuts and the detriment that they would cause, as well as pave the way for further action if were necessary. As the budget cuts were reversed, our short-term goal was definitely accomplished. However, the Boston Public School system is fighting a long-term battle on two fronts: against a state government that continually chooses to divert funding from education, and against charter schools, which siphon already limited public education funds. This battle is ongoing. I believe that without our outcry, the budget cuts would have been implemented, and our education systems would have sustained heavy losses. Additionally, our state government would have come away with the knowledge that no one would challenge their choice to desiccate our education programs. Knowing that they would remain unchallenged, the decisions that detract from our quality of education would have continued.
EL: I think the goal was to show the government in the City of Boston that the youth, in particular students, will not be pushed around. We wanted to show them that we were paying attention to what they are doing and how it is affecting the youth all across the city. I do believe we were able to achieve these goals. I think the walkout made a large impression with Marty Walsh and it was one of the main reasons he reprieved the budget cuts.
Lastly, do you feel you learned anything new from this experience? Also, do you have any advice for High School students like yourselves who are looking to organize within their own school systems?
IK: My only advice is to never stop demanding what you deserve. Accept nothing less; if you scream loud and long enough, you will be heard.
EL: I learned the true power that the youth have. I never expected the walkout to be as significant as it was. It was a beautiful thing to see that many students unite and stand up the government. My advice to other high school students who want to organize within their own schools systems is this: never listen to the people that say “it won’t make any difference" or “how is this going to help anything?" When trying to organize the walkout at BLS I received tremendous pushback, but I never listened. Now, I can tell those same people that our voice was heard and we we're able to have an impact because Marty Walsh reprieved the budget cuts. Youth united can never be defeated.