Amidst the recent cries for Boston College students to speak up against injustice and take action, whether it’s for student rights or divestment from fossil fuels, students taking action against injustice off campus often go overlooked.
Rachel Newhall, A&S ’18, has been doing just that—taking action, and leading change. As part of Generation Citizen, a national non-profit with a chapter at BC, Newhall and a group of Brighton High School students have been working the entire semester to pressure the passage of a bill in the Massachusetts legislature that would require members of the Mass. Police Department to wear body cameras while on duty, in response to the ever-increasing distrust that exists between civilians and police.
Generation Citizen is an organization based around “action-civics,” which involves building grassroots campaigns for advocacy projects, according to Megan Greeley, A&S ’16 and the BC Chapter Executive Director. The organization trains college students in a civics curriculum, which they then teach twice a week at schools in the Boston Public School system.
The non-profit’s tagline, “Don’t Talk About Change—Lead it,” speaks to the culture around change fostered in GC’s classrooms. “It’s meant to make you stop and think about how possible it is in our system to step up and work towards the change that you need in your community,” says Greeley.
In addition to informing students about the generalities of how government works, the GC curriculum approaches the action-civics side of teaching from an hourglass structure. Throughout the semester, students discuss common issues that affect their community on a frequent basis, and then work to determine the root cause of that issue, and a goal for how to tackle it.
From there, the students develop tactics for how to approach a resolution of the issue, and determine decision-makers and influencers in the community who could help them achieve their goal.
Newhall says that overwhelmingly, the students in her class wanted to talk about police relations with their community. “They said police brutality is an issue that affects people in Massachusetts and most specifically in Brighton where they live,” she said.
From there, the class narrowed in on working to pass a bill that was already in a committee in the Mass. House, H.1637, An Act Relevant to Police Equipment, in an attempt to attack the broader issue of a general distrust between police and the communities they serve in Brighton and the greater state of Massachusetts. The class has made a petition on Change.org, a crowdsourcing social activism site, in addition to getting hand signatures for the petition from their families, friends and peers—the class hopes to get 500 signees by the end of the semester.
According to US News and World Report’s rankings, 80 percent of Brighton High’s student body is economically disadvantaged, and a little over half is proficient in math and English. Newhall says that out of her class of 25-30 students, all in the Junior ROTC program, all but one of the students are people of color. “Their stories are hard to hear,” she says.
“They know they’re in this bottom sect of Boston and of society, they haven’t been given the opportunities that people right up the road have, and they’re very aware of that,” says Newhall. “But we can shift the perspective from ‘I’m gonna complain about this’ to, ‘I’m actually gonna do something that may have a substantial impact.’”
The class has made some headway with local decision-makers, having already met with Senator William Brownsberger, the chairman of the committee in which the bill is currently being deliberated. “If [Rachel’s class] can get the Senator to publically say he’s supporting this bill, that’s huge,” says Greeley. “Even if it’s not ending police brutality or establishing trust between police and people, it’s a big deal.”
In addition to Newhall’s project, the Generation Citizen model has helped hundreds of students across the country enact lasting change in their schools, carrying out a number of advocacy projects that range from holding a day-long conference on violence prevention and the culture of violence in schools, to successfully changing their school’s cell phone policy to allow them to use their cell phones in between classes. “It’s a moment of revelation for them, that they can get their school to do what they need them to do,” says Greeley.
The semester culminates in the presenting of each class’s project at Civics Day, which takes place in early May at the State House. Each class sends 4-5 representatives to give a formal presentation on their projects to a panel of local leaders, offering a chance to engage with members of local government, as well as showcase their hard work.
Newhall believes that in the end, while her class’s petition may not change anything, it has the value of demonstrating community support for the bill, and the need to eradicate unwarranted police brutality.
“The fact that out of every issue in the world, this class of 30 students picked this one is just a reminder that the senators and representatives working on the bill are doing good work.”