Hot-Wiring High School
Beyond exploiting the possibilities of the Internet, the group is savvy in its use of other media. In places where freedom of speech has been impinged upon, students have printed the offending newspaper articles or statements on T-shirts and worn them to class. Elsewhere, at Greenbriar High School in Evans, Georgia, Mike Cameron was suspended last year for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on a school-designated "Coke Day" (the school was hoping to win $500 in a Coca-Cola-sponsored contest). When Smilowitz read a news report about the incident, he contacted Elizabeth Palnau, the ISAA's Georgia co-chair. The two wrote a politely derisive press release on the subject and gave interviews to the press; within forty-eight hours school officials admitted they had made a mistake, and the suspension was erased from Cameron's record. "That's a great way to avoid litigation," Smilowitz says. "Make so much fun of people that they back down."
That same week, Bryan Giles, a junior at Middletown High School in Connecticut, was suspended for wearing a dress to school. The next day a group of boys came to school in dresses as a show of solidarity and were also suspended. They were pardoned after the ISAA drew national media attention to the fiasco.
At this early point in its organizational life, ISAA is still more interesting as a phenomenon than as a model. Its reliance on the Internet, for example, raises unresolved questions. For anyone who doesn't read and write easily, e-mail can be a difficult mode of communication. One ISAA state coordinator--for whom English is not a first language--told me he sometimes prefers to telephone his fellow activists, because his e-mails are often misunderstood. Access is an even thornier problem. As Smilowitz admits, "We get a more privileged group, kids who have AOL. Most people can't afford it." He's right. Only 18 percent of Web users have household incomes under $25,000, so it's not surprising that almost a third of the ISAA's chapters are in Connecticut, the most affluent state in the country. After participating in a student panel at the state Capitol, Smilowitz approached a young black activist, Julian Stone of Hamden. At the end of the enthusiastic conversation, Smilowitz asked Stone if he had e-mail. "Do I have a computer?" Stone retorted. "No. Can my parents afford a computer? No."
ISAA's hopes for diversifying its base have been frustrated by its lack of funds--even liberal foundations shy away from youth-run groups--and, as in any organization, ISAA's demographics influence its priorities. While urban, community-based youth organizations tend to be more concerned with police harassment, gun violence and lack of job opportunities, ISAA tends to fight the stifling aspects of suburban and small-town culture. With a more diverse group, ISAA would probably begin making connections between different kinds of antiyouth policies in interesting ways--exploring, for instance, how the criminalization of black kids hurts all kids and how the war on teenagers being waged in the criminal justice system and the crackdowns on suburban students are two sides of the same repressive coin.
The class divide is a tough one to bridge, though, especially when much of ISAA's work emphasizes individual rights and the plight of iconoclasts such as Mike Cameron and Bryan Giles, who simply want to express themselves. ISAA has, for instance, never argued that Cameron's suspension was a farcical and disturbing example not only of a violation of one student's rights but of the growing corporatization of education made possible by the diminishing commitment of public resources that affects all students, particularly poor students. Indeed, ISAA recently sought corporate funding for a national conference and was rejected by every company it approached. Coca-Cola, explaining its refusal, pointed to the word "Activism" in the group's name. While such experiences haven't tempted ISAA to soften its image, neither have they radicalized its leaders; Smilowitz says he hasn't ruled out the possibility of future corporate support.
At times ISAA's politics seem to fit too comfortably into an uninspiring do-it-yourselfism, in which dissent means everyone has his or her own wacky Web page and anyone can just get online. Of course, it's also a language that gets one heard in mainstream political culture, and these students are sophisticated enough to know that. And, let's remember, they're still only in high school.
ISAA members often cite the civil rights movement as an influence on their own politics. Leah Nelson--who, through ISAA, fought to start a Gay/Straight Alliance at Manchester High School in Connecticut--says of the activists who began the sit-ins, "They didn't just sit there and think, 'This isn't going to work.' They sat down and protested, and it did work. And I'm inspired, not just by MLK and Malcolm X, but by the actual kids who were just a year older than me, who got on the bus and went down there."