When Providence students Eugenie Rose Belony and Demi Egunjobi met with Gov. Dan McKee earlier this year to advocate for the removal of school resource officers from district buildings, they both left feeling ignored and unheard.
McKee ultimately did not remove school resource officers.
“He completely dismissed student voices,” Belony said.
In that meeting, she realized that student activists in Providence need to “make noise” for their voices to be heard.
Belony, an 11th grader at Providence Career and Technical Academy, and Egunjobi, a 10th grader at Classical High School, are co-directors of the Providence Student Union Leadership Team, a youth-led nonprofit organization focused on improving education in Providence.
At an event Wednesday sponsored by the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, the two discussed the PSU, youth activism, organizing during the pandemic and the need for district improvements in Providence.
“The Governor and his team have listened to students’ needs, and discussed adding resources that they expressed need for, such as community specialist positions to provide mental health and other support,” Alana O’Hare, the governor’s press secretary, previously wrote in an email to The Herald. “He appreciates students’ voices as an important one on decisions that impact their future in schools.”
The PSU’s goals include increasing district transparency and incorporating student input into the hiring of a new permanent superintendent following the resignation of Harrison Peters in May. The organization is also in the midst of an ongoing legal battle, Cook v. McKee (formerly Cook v. Raimondo), against the state of Rhode Island. The case alleges that the state has failed to provide civics education in its schools.
Central to the PSU’s mission is an effort to ensure students are enthusiastic and “feel safe and comfortable” in school, Belony said. The organization seeks to establish students’ rights to education, identity expression, healthy food and other demands included in its Student Bill of Rights.
Belony and Egunjobi described how they maintained community throughout the pandemic through the use of social media. When traditional organizing was hampered by public health restrictions, they furthered their work online through petitions, hashtags and public statements.
“I feel like (the pandemic) has definitely increased our numbers,” Belony told The Herald. “People just hop on their phone, hop on their computer” and “get involved.”
Speaking on the PSU’s connection to Brown, Belony and Egunjobi noted some University students enrolled in the Bonner Community Fellowship volunteer as interns for the organization and encouraged Brown community involvement through their open workshops.
Egunjobi, a member of the University’s Public Education Committee, told The Herald that the committee is currently discussing efforts to improve mental health counseling and provide resources to assist Providence students in higher education admission.
Belony said the University should contribute more of its “billions of dollars” to improving education in Providence and better informing students about financial assistance and scholarships to help pay for college.
Looking forward, the PSU seeks to increase their numbers, equip students with “resources they need” and amplify student voices, Belony said.
“Youth are always going to continue making change,” Egunjobi said. “Youth are just always going to advocate for what they believe in.”