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Hot-Wiring High School | The Nation

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Hot-Wiring High School

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The ISAA began in the seemingly conservative setting of a Rotary Club's International New Generations Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. "Everyone was kind of dressed up," recalls Rinaldi, but "it turned into a big complaining session about how bad the youth situation was in America." Together Smilowitz, Rinaldi and Abe Walker, then 15, 16 and 15, respectively, decided it was time to start a national pro-youth, youth-run organization. "We ran around the conference signing people up," Rinaldi says, getting fifty-two members. The three decided that Smilowitz had the most time and energy, and without a power struggle he assumed leadership. Upon returning to Hartford, Smilowitz arranged a meeting with Joe Grabarz, executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, to ask for help in launching the new organization. Grabarz agreed. Now the CCLU Foundation pays Smilowitz's phone bills and copying expenses, and Grabarz, whose own experience stretches from supporting union pickets and distributing Black Panther papers as a teenager to campaigning for gay rights and national healthcare as an adult, meets with him weekly, sometimes offering organizing advice. But advice is just that. "We're not the ACLU," Smilowitz says. "We're entirely student-run. And we're not just a rights organization--we'll work on any issue that affects students."

This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series.

About the Author

Liza Featherstone
Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on student and youth activism has been...

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The structure of ISAA is simple: Smilowitz, who runs the organization out of his bedroom and family den, is in charge, and other members are free to take on as much responsibility, initiate as many campaigns and make as many decisions as they wish. When making a decision, ISAA state coordinators (heads of chapters or clusters of chapters) never consult the entire body of the ISAA membership; they may ask Smilowitz's advice, or they may simply hash it out with the other members of their chapter. The group is growing more decentralized--as it matures, coordinators increasingly call the shots and often don't even tell Smilowitz what they're doing. But no one seems to resent Smilowitz's authority to represent the organization to the media or to decide where it stands on national issues. This summer Smilowitz will be succeeded by Galen Price, and the membership is committed to developing leaders for the future.

As soon as the CCLU got on board, Smilowitz began organizing chapters all over the country by going to youth conferences, publicizing the group through the Web and word of mouth, calling up any student he heard about who had a serious gripe. He also launched a campaign to put two high school students on the Connecticut Board of Education, a drive that galvanized students all over the state to write letters and meet with their representatives. Last May every legislator in Connecticut voted in favor of the ISAA's bill, and the students began serving in August. But the victory was bittersweet: Members of Connecticut's current Board of Education lobbied hard against the bill and succeeded, at the last minute, in stripping the student members of voting rights.

This year, not satisfied with such tokenism, ISAA has been pushing a bill through the legislature that would grant the student board members limited voting rights. At press time, it had passed the Senate and was expected to pass the House. The Connecticut experience has inspired students in Illinois and New Jersey to begin their own representation campaigns. Students in Vermont have a promising campaign under way; their bill has the support of the governor and numerous key legislators, including the entire State Senate Education Committee. The legislature is expected to vote on the ISAA's bill this summer. ISAA has also placed students on local school boards in Vermont, Connecticut and Minnesota. Those gains may be even more important than the state efforts, given the far right's continuing focus on local school boards.

But the ISAA's chief organizational accomplishment is neither legal nor legislative. Organizing high school students is extremely difficult. Apart from being an impermanent base (students graduate), they are inexperienced and often politically uninformed. Their schedules (school most of the day; after-school jobs, sports or activities; homework in the evening) complicate political involvement. Their disconnectedness and isolation--easily caricatured as pouty alienation or angst--are rooted in the realities of their lives: their lack of mobility, frequent lack of access to people who share their concerns and passions, and relative lack of personal and political power. Adult authority over "minors" is a fundamental part of family-values ideology. Adolescents, despite their increasing classification as adults in the criminal justice system, are still treated as children--in the public sphere, at home and at school. And they don't vote, so politicians can accommodate them enough to appeal to adults without actually extending power to them.

For overcoming teenage geographic and personal isolation, building an informed membership and creating at least a nascent sense of collective power, it is impossible to underestimate the centrality of the Internet to ISAA's work. Every week five or six new members join through www.studentactivism.org, the group's Web site. On Monday nights ISAA gathers on America Online or other Web discussion servers, to which about half the membership subscribes. These discussions raise members' consciousness about the issues, create a forum for students from Massachusetts to California to exchange ideas and strategies, and mobilize chatters to action. At one "meeting," members had a spirited disagreement over whether an Ohio high school had the right to exclude an unwed mother from the National Honor Society. Within twelve hours, they were mobilizing NHS students nationwide to write letters on the girl's behalf, and a student who initially supported the exclusion became one of the point persons for the action, having been won over by the logic of the civil rights argument.

College activists' spontaneous road-trip culture has long nourished such cross-geographic exchanges, but pre-Internet, high school students would never have had access to them. Even if they drive, most don't have cars and can't just pick up and go; and few can afford long-distance phone bills. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, says "30 million households are online, and most classrooms will be within a few years, so clearly it's a very effective organizing strategy" that ISAA pursues. Even now, a third of US teenagers use the Internet, and their use is increasing at a rate faster than that of any other age group.

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