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EmpowerED 2014 – Elevating Student Power in Los Angeles

“If you had the power to change the education system, what would you do?”

This is my favorite question to ask students that I mentor in Los Angeles. Their responses are wonderfully imaginative, ranging from broader curriculum to outdoor classrooms. However, when I ask them what is stopping them from fighting for those changes, the answers have a similar ring. “I feel alone.” “No one listens to students.” “I don’t even know where to begin!”

As much as it saddens me to hear this, I do understand where they’re coming from. In recent years, the issue of education has gained more attention and has sparked a riveting national conversation about the state of our education system and the reforms it needs. Unfortunately, these conversations are often dominated by those furthest from the classroom, and ironically, almost completely absent from these debates are the voices of those who are most affected by the issues in question: the students.

teacher town hall

Education reformers Dr. Steve Perry, Michelle Rhee, and George Parker at StudentsFirst’s Teacher Town Hall event in Los Angeles. Ironically, no student voice and very little teacher voice was permitted at the event and I spoke out at the end to bring light to the fact that these education reformers have not taken the time to consider the voices of those closest to the school and its community. 

As a result, the so-called “reforms” that have emerged from these conversations have done very little to help students, and have actually left even more of them behind than ever. In the face of all this, how could a student even begin to feel like their voice is important? How could they not feel alone?

If students are the ones receiving the education, shouldn’t their voices be heard? 

Students all over the US, from Portland to Chicago to Providence, are tired of feeling powerless when it comes to decisions that affect their education. They are the future of this country and their voices should be the ones leading the national conversation on education.

That’s why they’ve begun to organize together, forming student unions and fighting back against threats to their education, such as budget cuts, high stakes testing, and school closings. From mass walkouts and sit-ins to creative street theatre and flash mobs, these students are demanding that their voices be heard.

Chicago student, Israel Munoz, EmpowerED 2014’s keynote speaker, marches with student organizers from the Chicago Students Union to protest school closings.

Over the past year, I have had the tremendous opportunity to learn from and work with some of these awe-inspiring student organizers. Hearing their stories has helped me realize that I am not alone and that elevating student voice is not an impossible goal. It’s also given me a great idea. What if I could share the hope I felt with the students in Los Angeles? What if they got the opportunity to learn from these student organizers and work with them to build a movement in LA?

EmpowerED: Los Angeles Student Power 2014

On Saturday, March 29th at the University of Southern California, youth from all over Los Angeles will participate in EmpowerED: Los Angeles Student Power 2014, a youth conference that will provide an inviting and invigorating space for students to raise their voices on important educational issues and collaborate on building a national student power movement. EmpowerED 2014 will be the first event ever to engage a student community in a conversation about their education. It is truly a conference designed for students by students.

The conversation will be initiated by a handpicked team of student leaders from Chicago, Newark, Portland, Providence, and Baltimore, who will share incredible stories of how they have elevated student voice and made history in their communities. The students in attendance will then have the chance to work with the student organizers in workshops to build organizing skills, share their ideas for education, and collaborate on developing a student power movement in Los Angeles.

In one portion of the conference, following a series of Imagining Learning’s Listening Sessions, students will have the unique opportunity to generate artwork that portrays their vision for student voice in education. This artwork will be displayed in an exhibit called “Collective Voice: The Wisdom of Young People on Education” in Washington DC and in a book with the same title, which will all be presented to political, social, education, and cultural leaders at a national educational conference in 2015.

(Source: Students from Jackson, MS holding up artwork from their Imagining Learning Listening Session.

Students from Jackson, MS holding up artwork from their Imagining Learning Listening Session.

I am truly excited to see what will unfold for the student power movement at the conference. I hope that by the end of the day, students will no longer feel alone or silenced when it comes to fighting for their education. I know that EmpowerED 2014 is simply the starting point to a larger movement for student power that will continue beyond the conference and an education system that will value student voice.

Educational justice will not be achieved by top-down approaches that deliberately silence the voices of those at the bottom. It will not be achieved by policies that exclude, divide, or oppress. It will be achieved by liberating the students who live this everyday reality and elevating their voices in the educational policy process.

We must be led by the perspectives of those we aim to serve. This is how we believe in youth. This is how we give students true choice and liberation. This is how we give them a great education.

Will you join us in supporting student voice and power?

EmpowerED Letter Size

Learn more at


All high school students in the Los Angeles area are invited to attend the event and can register here.

Want to support student voice and organizing? Please consider making a donation here! Funds will go mainly towards the travel costs for the high school student organizers who will be speaking at the event. Thank you!

Hannah Nguyen is the executive director for the EmpowerED: Los Angeles Student Power 2014 conference, which is co-hosted by USC Program Board, Academic Culture Assembly, and Students United for Public Education. She is also a student at the University of Southern California majoring in Sociology and double minoring in Spanish and Musical Theatre. She is an aspiring high school social studies teacher who believes in revolutionary ideas over reform. This is why she currently fights for educational justice and equity as a mentor for high school students in Los Angeles public schools and a chapter leader for the Los Angeles chapter of Students United for Public Education (SUPE –

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