Our Voices — how I found mine, and why we need yours in this fight too

By Addie Lentzner

This essay is part of the Student Agenda Essay Series, where students are sharing the pillars of the National Student Agenda that resonate most, and why they take action.

Addie, pictured on the right, is located in Bennington, Vermont and is a first-year college student.

My journey to finding my voice started during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when I was in tenth grade. I remember sitting in my room in virtual school — next to the google meets screen of precalculus, I had the news up. I was reading about Covid deaths, racial justice protests, climate change, criminal justice inequities, and more injustices that I had been aware of before, but never at this depth. I was in a state of shock and disgust. I didn’t know what to do, but I had to do something. 

In February 2020, a man named Thierry died down the street from my home. Thierry was homeless and he froze to death in the 4 degree weather. This broke me. And then George Floyd died, but he wasn’t the only one, and knowing that broke me more. Meanwhile, I was supposed to do my precalculus and chemistry homework?

Something felt fundamentally wrong. The atrocities kept coming, but it wasn’t just the things that made the news. I dug deeper. It was men and women who had transformed themselves being killed by the death penalty. It was students in school across the US, especially students of color, who were dropping out or getting suspended and leaving school. It was the rampant racism in the housing market, due to the history of redlining. It was everything and more. 

I was outraged, but I felt like I didn’t have a voice. What was I supposed to do? I went to school every day (I mean, on my computer screen) and felt totally disconnected. Disconnected from the curriculum, my peers, my homework, the teachers. Why didn’t they care that the world was dying? Why weren’t we talking about this? 

I thought to myself, “maybe I’m a little extreme or naive” — but ultimately, there are major problems in the world and we need to address them. Luckily, I was able to find my voice. I started an organization, worked for lawmakers, and interned at education agencies. I found my voice and I have made it my mission in life to ensure every child and every adult has a platform to use their voice for what matters to them.  Especially every student. Not just performatively, not just in theory - in reality.

Because it should be: nothing about us without us.

Policy should be made with student input and lived experiences., but it’s not. Many of my peers talked constantly about how they hated school. They didn’t relate to what they were learning, they didn’t feel connected to teachers. School didn’t align with their futures, and some of them dropped out. Others graduated, but ended their education there, after four years that felt wasted. They weren’t able to use their voice, and didn’t feel like they had a fighting chance. 

Many of my peers also faced racism in school. Whether it was implicit or explicit, systemic or overt, racism was very present in school. For example, through my nonprofit, we asked students survey questions. We found out that over 70% of students didn’t receive an accurate history on race in school, and over 60% of students regularly hear racial slurs in school. I saw this in real time. Students facing racist incidents across my home state, teachers not knowing how to talk about race and harming students of color, and students making jokes that were actually very harmful.

I also knew students who came to school without eating breakfast, who slept in their car or lived in overcrowded apartments. They didn’t get to shower the night before, or do their homework in peace, or even sleep in peace. This is the reality for too many students.

We should have the power and self-determination to help build our education system, to help fix these issues in the system and society, to make our lives and the lives of future generations better. Because it’s our future we’re talking about, and we should be in charge of it. Students who have the experiences of homelessness, racism, etc, should be at the forefront of these conversations. Their voices should be heard, because their stories are the ones that are going to change the narrative. However, all too often they’re not heard. We’re not heard.

My voice was heard. But what about everyone else?

Nothing about us without us. In theory, that’s how it should be. In practice, we have a long way to go. We need to remove the systemic barriers that make it difficult for students to speak up. We need to get students on school boards. We need more awareness. Our Turn is a nonprofit organization dedicated to this task, and we just launched our new Student Agenda. One of the pillars is Nothing About Us Without Us. Check out our new Agenda here, and make your voice heard! Whether it’s through Our Turn, or showing up at a local school board meeting, or speaking out on policy….you have power! Students: don’t let them do anything without you!