Meet the High School Senior Advocating for Safe, Inclusive Change in the COVID Era
Chloe Pressley is a high school senior in Woodbridge, Virginia — a mostly white school district. In 2019, she successfully created a Black student union at her school. That experience has led to opportunities for herself and her peers to shift policy at her school, her community, and her state. With thousands of young people learning from home or in non-traditional environments because of the pandemic coupled with a renewed national focus on the voice of young activists in policy, young people like Pressley are in the midst of carving a path toward a future yet unknown.
Supermajority News talked to Pressley about her activism, and the advice she would give to other rising activists.
What was your path into activism?
I guess it was kind of an accident that I got involved as an activist. I was in a leadership class during my junior year and I was really outspoken and involved in the work in that class. My teacher noticed my passion and recommended me to represent our school for a local effort called Healthy Community, Healthy Youth. This collaboration was a combined effort among the 12 to 13 different schools in our county. We were encouraged to share input and recommendations related to education policies in the district, and as I started getting more and more involved with that group, I realized my love for making changes and finding opportunities to share the voices of my peers. I would go back to my school and get opinions from my peers to share with the committee. I realized then how much I loved doing this kind of work.
Adult members of that committee saw my passion and introduced me to Student Voice, a national organization that positions students as storytellers, organizers and institutional partners who advocate for student-driven solutions to educational inequity, and Move School Forward, a collective of youth-driven organizations taking local action to drive student-centric change. Getting involved at this level felt like everything I’ve ever dreamed of doing. I started by helping both organizations plan virtual events and call to actions that could be done across the nation and not just in one central place.
How did your experience developing a Black student union at your school influence your path to activism?
I was talking with some of my friends about just making our school more inclusive — we did not have a Black student union in our school at that time. In fact, only one other school in our county had a Black student union. It kind of baffled me because I did feel different from my peers as a Black student. I felt welcomed in my school, but not necessarily supported in the same capacity as someone of another race would. So I partnered with two other friends to found a Black student union to support students like us.
Although it wasn’t required, we wanted to show that we were serious and committed for the long haul, so we created a constitution and bylaws for our union to be approved by the school administration. Once the union was approved, we decided to make our meetings instructional but fun. We play games to break the ice and build community, but we also educate our members through lectures and discussions of racial issues that we aren’t necessarily taught in school.
For example, we did a lesson about race and politics in the judiciary system where we discussed legal cases that a lot of our students didn’t know about. We delved deep into these topics by discussing whether or not defendants in the cases even should have been tried, how they should have been treated, or even what [the] laws were [at the time of the case] and what rights should [defendants in those cases] have known they had. Additionally, we taught them about histor[ic days] like Juneteenth. I would say 90% of our members before that meeting did not know that Juneteenth was a holiday, and that frightened me in a way. We hosted potlucks with a bunch of soul food and food from all of our cultures.
One issue that came to the surface was actually within the Black community in our school. Our Black population in our school is comprised of African-Americans, Caribbean-Americans, and people who are primarily from Africa and immigrated here, and we noticed that these three groups tend to have a lot of conflicts, which is what a lot of other races don’t realize. We fight against each other. Our Black student union is a way to find unity amongst all of us. We discussed the differences in our cultures, but also the similarities in order to break those barriers and understand that although we might have different cultures, we all are the same in some capacity.
By building the Black student union, I do feel like there was there was an impact within the school, mainly because prior to our founding we had two other cultural student organizations in the school: the Muslim Student Alliance and the Latin American Student Alliance. So with the introduction of our Black Student Union, we extended a hand out to both of those groups, even though we were up and coming and we barely had any funds to keep our meetings going. Now we collectively have more clear communication with our principal, which wasn’t really common beforehand. Now we’re able to go to him with things that we think are affecting our different groups, and issues that we feel could change for the better of our school environment.
As the year went on, I realized that a lot of my members were missing pieces of their history that should be automatically given to them. We shouldn’t have to learn these histories outside of the school day. Because these histories and lessons aren’t taught to everyone, kids who should know [about them] don’t because it’s not required in their curriculum. And this is the reason that things are the way they are in our society at large. So I reached out to a person in our county who was hosting a “Youth Talk” for some of the county board members and supervisors, and at that event, I brought up some of the issues that we face as minority students within our public schools in our predominantly white county — especially the need for a more inclusive, honest curriculum that is just not beating around the bush.
Because of this conversation, some of those leaders approached the state Senator, who created a bill to allow for a more culturally inclusive curriculum at the state level, which inspired our governor to pass a law that said that seniors can now take Black history over U.S. history as a graduation requirement, and that would fulfill the requirement of a history at that grade level.
What work have you led in the past few months related to the pandemic’s impact on learning and education in your community?
After that experience, I was keeping up with the County Board of Supervisors. As the conversation about reopening schools began this spring, I realized that the bulk of the conversation was from the perspective of adults. They were talking to just parents and adults in the community, but not the students. They surveyed parents in the county, but I was like, “Where is the student voice in this whole decision making process?” I [also] saw my friends talking on social media with their friends about how they had these questions [about school reopenings] and how they felt, and I just felt like they should be reflected in this decision making process, so I took action to make that happen.
I tried to contact some of the school board members, but obviously they were swamped with millions of emails from people about the schools reopening. When I didn’t get a response to my emails, I took it upon myself to reach out to my peers on Twitter, and I asked them to send me their perspective[s] on the issue. As hundreds of responses came in, I tagged every single school board member with a Twitter account. I said, “This is a student perspective, and they want you to hear them.” Surprisingly, it was a much faster way to hear back than the thousands of emails that they were receiving. The school board members realized what I was sending them from students was a much different perspective than what they were hearing from the surveys of parents and staff. So they created a student survey and allowed students to submit them over time as the news shifted to see the evolving perspectives of students in our county.
What would you love to see change in education as we go forward?
I do feel like this pandemic is an opportunity for us to reshape our education system. We don’t need 8 hour days in a school building, just sitting down at a desk and listening to a lecture. We don’t need that. And that’s proven true through these online classes as many students are still succeeding and still feeling engaged. Even for those students who are struggling, there is an opportunity for them to gain more support from educators than before too. For example, at my school, in order to get help in any subject, you usually have to stay after school or you have to come in early to talk to the teacher. But what about those students who don’t have a ride? Or whose only transportation is a bus that leaves right at the end of the school day? Now, online, that student who would have been struggling before can literally just log on to Zoom and have an office hour meeting with their teacher. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I am seeing that students seem much happier because they’re getting more sleep and they have more time to learn on their own about what they care about or what [they want] to learn. In my case, for example, I’m taking a class at a different school, and that would have never been possible if we weren’t online.
I feel like most of the issues we’re facing now, like students who don’t have access to wifi or digital devices, we as a nation can provide funding for all of that. But what we cannot do is provide cars for people to get from one place to the other, or more time in the day when that day is packed full with hours at school that aren’t all spent learning anyway. Our school system in America should be open to new visions for education instead of just what has been established in the past. Was it the best we could do as it was anyway? I don’t think so. What was normal was just mediocre at best. I think we can do so much better.
What do you believe is the value of young activists right now on our society as a whole?
I feel like our impact is going to be revolutionary. Even if that sounds like an overstatement of some sort, I feel like the way that young people are so in tune with social media and the way that we’re so passionate, open, and opinionated will literally change the future. We’re out here literally walking I-95 in protest of racial injustice. We’re ready to do whatever we need to do to make sure that our government implements the policies that we want to see happen.
What is next for your own path?
Honestly, I’m not completely sure, but I do just want to keep making some sort of impact, whether it be large or small. I want to be a voice for others who aren’t able to be a voice for themselves.
What advice would you give to young activists who want to follow in your footsteps?
I would say they really need to realize that no matter how small your voice may seem, it truly does matter and the impact that you can make is beyond what you can comprehend right now. The possibilities that can happen just by speaking up can change your entire future.