Philly high school students learn the art of protest with Mighty Writers

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Nia Peterson, 15, drew a depiction of the American flag, but with rainbow colors, representing the LGBTQ community, instead of the traditional red, white and blue.

“Philadelphia is pretty supportive of LGBT rights and I’m pretty happy about it,” said Peterson, a student at Julia R. Masterman School. “There are some people struggling out there nationally that I think we should help.”

Peterson was one of four students from Mighty Writers, a nonprofit organization that teaches Philadelphia students writing skills, to read a declaration at City Hall.

Ten Philadelphia high school students from Mighty Writers South marched to City Hall with handmade posters and a letter of protest, declaring the changes they want to see in Philadelphia.

The march started from the Mighty Writers’ building at 15th and Christian streets and made its way to the North Broad Street side of City Hall.

The march was part of the “Power to the People” workshop, which was led by author Peggy Kern.

The workshop allowed the students — who were majority African American Muslim young women recruited from a local mosque — to express and realize their common concerns, which included religious discrimination, LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, education, mass incarceration and drug laws.

The students created a declaration letter that asserted their collective beliefs system, in the traditions of historical social justice movements, Kern said. The students learned about the Black Panther Party’s ten-point platform, watched interviews with activists like Angela Davis and a speech from Janet Mock, as well as Black Lives Matter organizers.

Kern said the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the increase in highly publicized shootings, was “radicalizing” for her.

“I am always very protective of my students and my readers and that sent me to a new level,” said Kern, who is the author of the Bluford Series, a collection of young adult novels focusing on the lives of students and families in urban areas.

A week after the 2016 presidential election, Kern had the idea and interest to teach a class for high school students focused on writing, but also the history of protest.

The foundation of the declaration was based off a rally for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in Seattle, where two women took over the stage at a stadium. They held the stage until the crowd, who kept booing them, had a moment of silence for the death of Michael Brown. The Seattle rally was held the day before the first anniversary of Brown’s death.

The women read their own letter, welcoming Sanders to Seattle, and discussing its history of taking the lands of Native American tribes, its gentrification of neighborhoods in the city and racism.

The Mighty Writers students started their speech with “Welcome to Philadelphia.”

“Welcome to Philadelphia, where there are only seven librarians left to serve over 130,000 students,” Peterson said. “We deserve fully funded schools. We deserve a proper education.”

Juwayriya Abdul-Hadi, 15, read the part of the declaration that she wrote: mass incarceration. She also said she was interested in seeing an end to police brutality and youth violence.

“I want people to understand that even though we are young, I feel like we have a voice and we need to be heard too because we are the next generation and need to be educated,” said Abdul-Hadi, who goes to Central High School.

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, the program director for Mighty Writers South, worked closely with Kern to help recruit students from the local mosque and also get the march permit from City Hall.

Thompkins-Bigelow said she was most impressed with how the students expressed their identities through writing.

“So much of their power and voice has been taken and to be able to have a platform where they say this is not right, that our school’s don’t respect us and that we don’t feel like people care about us in our city,” she said.

Kern said that on the way to City Hall students were giggling and smiling as people on the street acknowledged their posters and gave them support.

“[The students] were giving each other courage, which is what the idea of public demonstration is, that we aren’t alone,” Kern said.

Nia Peterson said she wasn’t nervous about reading the letter, she said, because she had the other students and their support around her. Peterson had also previously attended the protest at the Philadelphia International Airport over President Donald Trump’s travel ban executive order.

“You don’t have to speak up to convey a message,” Peterson said. “I don’t feel like I changed anything, but just declaring something, it felt nice … Just with everything that’s been going on with the government, I just feel like it’s important to not be quiet about these things and to let people know you are not okay with it.”

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