Image by Aleutie
I first met Erik Lazo, age sixteen, in a room packed with students from schools across the city strategizing to defeat Question 2 this November. The Massachusetts ballot measure would enable twelve new charter schools to open every year—indefinitely. Given that the state’s total education budget would not increase, opponents argue that opening new charters would lead to even more financial strain on—and even closings of—their public schools. Lazo and other students are doing everything in their power to defeat the measure.
Lazo got involved in the cause after he heard that his school would lose its Japanese program due to citywide budget cuts. He was baffled by his many of peers’ reactions.
“Nobody said a word,” he told me recently. “Or they would be like, ‘Oh, that sucks. I guess I’m going to have to take another language.’ They wouldn’t be okay with it, but they’d just let it happen.”
Lazo, however, refused to just let it happen.
Lazo loves studying Japanese—it’s the reason he fought to attend Snowden International School, a public school with strong language programs in the heart of downtown Boston. He didn’t want to lose that class—or Snowden’s other distinctive offerings, like its International Baccalaureate and popular study abroad programs.
He reached out to Marlena Rose, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. She offered to come to Snowden to speak to students about Boston’s proposed budget cuts and the ways the city’s charter schools drain funds from the district.
Lazo jumped at the chance. “I made as many flyers as possible,” he says. “I printed them out and taped them all over the school—the hallways, bathroom doors, every door I could find.” He made multiple versions of the flyer, in the hopes of appealing to as many students as possible, but they all contained a variation on one phrase:
Do you want your voice to be heard?
“The room was filled!” he recounts, describing Rose’s event. “There were people who don’t even take Japanese. People wanted to be involved.”
At the meeting, members of the Snowden student government decided to organize a district-wide student protest. They drafted a formal letter, which began:
“DID YOU KNOW? All BPS schools will be facing large amounts of budget cuts in the 2016-2017 school year . . . You won’t be able to learn at full capacity if you don’t have the classes you need.
The letter spread quickly on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, and students across Boston began to take steps to put its proposed course of action into effect.
"On Monday, March 7th, 2016, at 11:30 a.m. no matter what class you’re in get up and walk out of school . . . Don’t look back, continue forward . . . Head to Beacon Hill."
It worked. On a cold Monday morning over three thousand students participated in the walkout.
Before his political awakening, Erik Lazo was a shy and nervous kid. “I was never good at socializing until the walkout,” he explains. He has lived in a homeless shelter for the last five years. “We’re dirt poor.” His few possessions are routinely stolen from the single room he shares with his siblings and his parents. “It’s really tiring and burdensome, and it hurts a lot,” he says.
But the walkout—which he calls “one of the greatest moments of my life”—galvanized him. As he puts it::
“With activism, you notice that you’re never too weak. If someone’s going to step on your toes, you don’t have to be okay with it. You can change your society. And being more connected with your community, you no longer need this isolated mentality . . . Not only do you experience whatever’s going on in your school, you experience what’s going on in other people’s lives. And then these experiences kind of intertwine with your own.”
Through his activism, Lazo has met dozens of other young people—many of whom had never been involved in political action prior to this spring. When he first starting attending meetings of the Boston Youth Organizing Project, Erik told me, not many students came. “But post walkout,” he says, “the entire room has never been empty. Never.”
Gabi Pereira, a sixteen-year-old junior at South Boston High School who found out about the walkout on Facebook, describes the experience as “a rush.” After participating, she realized, “as long as I got other young people with me, I can do anything.” After the March walkout, she led her school to City Hall in a second walkout in May; over the summer, she became involved with Save Our Public Schools, the group that opposes Question 2.
“I learned what the ballot question was, and what would happen if we lifted the cap,” Pereira says. “I was literally canvassing for like two hours every single day. Obviously in the summer it was hot and I was sweaty, but it didn’t feel like work, because I was just talking to people from my community in Dorchester. And I had this sense of being like a justice heroine because a lot of people weren’t informed and they had kids in public schools. And I’m just like, ‘You need to know about this because this is going to affect you and your family.’”
Her friend Michael Jones, a nineteen-year-old student at Boston Day and Evening Academy, takes a similar tack. “You’re cutting the resources of something that’s blossoming,” he says. “It’s like cutting a flower right before it blooms.”
Emily Kaplan is a writer and public school teacher in Boston.