Nayana Gurung is a high school leader with Climate Generation’s Youth Environmental Activists (YEA!) Campaigns program. She’s passionate about social justice, which is why she loves climate work.
My experience with 197 Students for Change has been a huge learning experience that has impacted the ways that I approach organizing with peers, addressing people in power, community outreach and many other aspects of organizing in the future.
Before and at the beginning of my time with YEA!, I started a group called 197 Students for Change (SFC) this summer after I was exposed to the corrupt, racist, misogynistic culture of our district’s administration and an overwhelming number of students were exposed on social media for using slurs or doing racist/discriminatory things. I had already connected with a few peers about making some demands, but the account that was exposing students gave us the momentum we needed while many community members were infuriated. Here are our demands. Fast-forward two months to the beginning of my YEA! campaign where I decided I wanted to implement an Ethnic Studies course at my high school with the help of my five peers from 197 SFC.
There were many highlights and victories throughout my campaign/197 SFC experience that felt very good in the moment, but have also been lost among many of the negative experiences that I/we as a group had. One highlight was getting involved with the Ethnic Studies Coalition and helping them navigate community outreach while also taking a lot of information from the people in the coalition. One thing that really stood out to me in the (virtual) meetings I attended was that an overwhelming majority of the people leading and participating were People of Color (POC) which is not always the case with youth organizing. It’s refreshing and welcoming to see POC in positions of power, especially when talking about ethnic studies.
Another thing that I love about the coalition is that we have so many open conversations about climate change and other issues that impact systematically marginalized groups at higher rates. It’s really encouraging that the Ethnic Studies Coalition will include intersectional climate change education in their curriculum because climate change is taught as a strictly scientific issue instead of a human rights issue as well. Climate justice cannot be achieved without racial justice!
I’m very glad to still be connected to this coalition and I’m excited to see how their work continues. One of the first victories within 197 Students for Change was in the first meeting we had with our superintendents where we presented our demands. We called for them to take action on at least 80% of our demands or we would call for them to rewrite the district core values (which have a large focus on equity, creating safe learning environments, etc), and they did agree to take action!
Though we are currently removed from the conversations of change in the district, I’ve heard that many of our demands have actually been turned into policy or have just been followed up on which is pretty rewarding! A few things that have been changed because of us: a part-time cultural liaison (who is a Somali woman) was promoted to a full-time position, all media with the n-word was removed from language arts curriculum, staff members are not allowed to say the n-word (finally), the School Resource Officer’s contract was not renewed, and speakers in our career/college prep class have been diversified. These are just the things that I know of and they’re all really exciting. I’ve also been told that our names are brought up in a lot of meetings about making anti-racist changes in our school which I would assume is a good thing. One other bonus from this work is that the house district 52B Republicans wrote an excerpt for their email list about us and how we are a threat to tradition which we take as a huge compliment. 🙂
This was exciting at the time, but we quickly realized that the superintendents were mostly talk and no action which put most of the action-steps on us. This resulted in a lot of unproductive meetings with the superintendents and building frustration within our group. All of us were starting to burn out quickly because we took on much more than we could handle, and we realized the superintendents were being PAID to do the work that we were doing for free which was extremely unfair to us. There’s a difference between youth advocacy and unpaid child labor, and the superintendents clearly didn’t understand that at the time. Anyways, all of our burnout from doing unpaid labor was resulting in internal problems that looked like lack of attendance, not being present in small group meetings, no passion for our work, and other things that were making our hard work even harder.
We soon realized that the way we were operating was not sustainable, and we reevaluated what we were doing. First of all, we decided that working with the Peters (our superintendents, yes, they’re both named Peter) was not worth our time or energy. We (197 SFC) were consistently bringing action steps to the table, and they were going in circles every meeting and looking out for their reputations instead of addressing how racist our school district is and showing a genuine desire to make change. There was so much gaslighting and patronizing that occurred in our meetings with them, so I’m extremely proud that we were able to step away instead of working with people who didn’t want real change.
This internal change also included a reevaluation of our demands, which essentially was just scrapping them completely. Some examples of our demands were: abolish In School Suspension and detention, remove all media with slurs from curriculum, replace the School Resource Officer, allocate therapists/mental health resources for students and staff, and many more. We still agree that our demands are important, but we quickly realized that we were only creating concrete and tangible anti-discriminatory demands to make them more palatable for people like the superintendents and even the community. The real problem with our school district is that it is racist and discriminatory, and small fixes will not change that.
While my work with YEA! and 197 SFC remained mostly separate, it was really important throughout my 197 SFC journey to have Akira, my campaign mentor, to cheer me on, give me a safe space to share my feelings, and give me really great organizing and self-care advice. I think that one of the best things that my YEA! campaign contributed to my work with 197 SFC was the curriculum, specifically learning about the characteristics of white supremacy in organizing work. The two characteristics that really stuck with me were “sense of urgency” and “perfectionism,” because as someone who has been brought up in this capitalist country, it’s very easy to forget that I don’t need to be perfect and not everything is urgent- especially in my organizing work.
In addition to this, my campaign helped me recognize the ways that climate justice and injustice connected to my group’s demands. Climate change impacts marginalized groups at a much higher rate, so our demands’ focus on anti-racism and anti-prejudice was in many ways also advocating for climate justice. Lastly, Akira’s support as well as the support from my YEA! peers was extremely beneficial to my development as an organizer and a person. I’m really grateful for the role that this campaign has played in my 197 SFC experience and my senior year as a whole.
As I’m sure you can tell, all of these experiences with the superintendents (and many more with the principals at our high school and the school board that I didn’t talk about) have taken the life and energy out of me, and continuing with my original campaign plan of implementing an Ethnic Studies course at my high school would require close interaction with all of these people. I definitely feel a little disappointment (not in myself, just generally) that the Ethnic Studies plan didn’t work out, but I always talk about how you can’t take care of others/your community if you’re not taking care of yourself, so I needed to take a step back before continuing any more organizing work. 197 SFC has been taking a break for about 2.5 months now, and we have no intentions of continuing our previous work until we all have energy and feel passionate. I’m so glad that we started some conversations in the district and community, and I hope that our district will change for the better with or without our help.