Transit Fare Victory Highlights Power of Student Led Organizing

by James Akbar Williams

Power of Organizing

On Monday, November 23rd Seattle City Council approved a budget that included one million dollars to pay for free ORCA passes to students at Seattle Public Schools. The struggle for those cards was led by a dedicated group of teenagers who are also students at Rainier Beach High School. On Wed, November 25th there was a celebration to honor those young leaders.

I made it to the Rainier Beach Cafeteria a little after 2pm. Most of the school had just let out for Thanksgiving Break. I was part of a crowd of fifty or so students and staff populating round tables in the interior of the room or buzzing around the perimeter. The air practically crackled with excitement. The wall at the far side of the gym held a huge sign of colorful and vibrant bubble letters. The message came across so lively the paper almost seemed to be singing praises.

 “Congrats RBHS! You Won

ORCA Cards Will Arrive

2nd Semester. Turn your free

lunch form into Mr. John ASAP

Got Questions, ask Ms. Chelsea”

“We are celebrating because we protested and won.” Ryan Croone, an 11th grader who helped lead the campaign broke down what was happening to me, “We did this because too many kids were having problems getting to school. And if we miss school or are late too many times, they hit us with the truancy. We did this to stop that. We did this to interrupt the School to Prison Pipeline.”

“The way it was before, you had to live way down past Columbia City to be eligible for a bus card. That is way too far. A lot of students were struggling to get to school on time. Many were late. Some decided to not come at all. That is why we fought.” Explained Mariam Bayo, a 10th grader from Beach who also helped lead the campaign.

Step by Step

“A lot of work went into making this happen.” Ryan talked about what it took to get to the celebration, “We wrote letters, marched 2.5 miles, talked to the Mayor, went to City Hall and made Harambee there (Harambee means ‘let’s come together’ in Swahili). At Freedom School we made Harambee through sharing songs and dance. To get the point across, we made Harambee when we went to City Hall about the ORCA cards too.”

One of the speakers recalled how it all started at beginning of last summer when a group of upperclassmen sat down to talk about what the “Day of Social Action” scheduled for the last day of the Urban Impact Freedom Schools should look like. That conversation took place around a table at the Activity Center of Rainier Beach High School. They talked about the school to prison pipeline, barriers to success for students at Beach, and how to make a difference. It was said that when a young person can’t get to school, they might be denied a lifetime of opportunities. That day the young leaders decided they wanted to work on ORCA cards.

Katera Howard, a Sophomore at Beach who was also part of the Urban Impact Freedom School, talked about getting involved in the movement, “At first, some of us just attended Freedom school for the stipend.   But there was process… I saw and felt the change. Freedom school became about building community and making a difference. By the end of the summer, winning the ORCA cards and helping people was priority. The stipends we received were kinda like a bonus, but no longer the main reason we were there.”


Not Stopping

The work these young people have done to this point is amazing. Some policy wonks work a whole career and never have courage to bring up a new issue or fight for anything that’s not already a sure win. There are vice presidents and political directors for non-profits and unions in this city who will never be able to claim a win as impressive as the one million dollars this group of spirited young people shook out the pockets of Seattle City Council. It is what it is. The young people who took part in this campaign are already great. But I don’t get the impression these young organizers are even considering stopping.

Miriam Bayo got serious when asked about what else needs to change, “Our school needs to be remodeled. Rainier Beach High School is old. I don’t understand why we still have old fashioned chalkboards in our classrooms. It’s 2015.”

Numbers and fact back up what the young scholars say. In recent years, Seattle Public Schools has invested over a billion dollars remodeling school buildings. Included in that total are 98.3 million for the Roosevelt High School remodel, Over 100 million for Garfield High School, 68 million for Cleveland High School. But no substantial sum for Rainier Beach. Testimony at a recent Seattle School Board meeting asked is Seattle Public Schools trying to wait until the community of Rainier Beach becomes gentrified before they remodel the High School.

Ryan Croone had a piece to say on the remodel topic also, “I used to go to school at Ben Franklin. Right before I switched to come here, that whole school got remodel. Everything was new and state of the art. We never got that here at Beach.” He pauses briefly, “We really need more funding. The heating and air systems don’t work right.   Class rooms are often too hot or too cold. We learn from outdated textbooks, some of the information in them we know is not true. This facility hasn’t been remodeled since the ‘80’s. How can anyone justify that?”

“I think what we did shows what our school is about.” Katera Howard, one of the ORCA card campaign’s youngest leaders, seemed optimistic about the future. “We showed what we can do. Now, I expect we can start to get more of the things we deserve for Rainier Beach.”

I hope and pray Katera is right. The youth are the truth.   Momentum is with them. In this moment, I believe our young people can accomplish anything they put their collective minds to. The powerful organizing at Rainier Beach is touching the lives of students and making civic responsibility relevant to youth across the city. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I broke bread with students from Chief Sealth High in West Seattle and Cleveland High on Beacon Hill, both expressed admiration and appreciation for the young organizers at Rainier Beach. I was told this against-all-odds win by teens in present day was exciting and instructive to them than paragraphs in faded history books about bus boycotts or elders who tell tales of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King.

James Akbar Williams is a South Seattle based Columnist, Educator, and Community Organizer.

Featured Image by Rainier Beach Action Coalition

4 thoughts on “Transit Fare Victory Highlights Power of Student Led Organizing”

  1. I absolutely echo these observations.

    I write a public education blog (Seattle School Community Forum) and we have reported on this issue many times. I’ve also been a public education advocate for over 15 years and watched what has (and has not) happened for RBHS.

    This change has been driven largely by parents and students. For anyone who thinks you can’t create change, these parents and students are prove you are wrong.

    I truly believe that parents and their support for teachers are what turned the strike to teachers (via the great Soup for Teachers group.)

    I truly believe that the students – the strong, tenacious, fearless students at RBHS – made this change happen.

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