– Tyra Griffith, Urban Impact’s CDF Freedom Schools® student-teacher
Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. should sharply remind us that the Civil Rights Movement should never just be chapters in history books. I was so proud of high school students from Seattle, Wash. who learned how they could make a difference in the world around them.
They took lessons from the Civil Rights Movement’s 1961 Freedom Rides when Blacks and Whites put their lives on the line to ride interstate buses into the segregated South. This bold student-led nonviolent action inspired a student-led action in 2015 that turned into a victory for many low-income Seattle students who need to ride city buses to get to school. This is the power of learning history and learning from history – the truth can set us free.
Seattle students, many from Rainier Beach High School, took part in the 2015 Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program at two sites sponsored by Urban Impact, a local community-based organization. As part of a national day of social action, the students learned how they can use their voices to make policy change. Like the Freedom Riders, they realized they couldn’t count on riding the bus to get where they needed to go – most of all, to school – because they couldn’t afford it.
More than 80 percent of children at Rainier Beach High School qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The city only provided transportation for middle and high school students who lived more than two miles away from school, which disproportionately impacted students at Rainier Beach and other high poverty schools.
The hardships for students such as sophomore Mariam Bayo dramatically illustrated the challenges. Mariam’s family couldn’t afford the $1.50 bus fare each way and her asthma made the nearly two-mile walk to school especially difficult. She often got chest pains while walking and didn’t always have access to medicine. Often late for school, her grades suffered and by the end of her 9th grade year she was failing several classes.
Other students were concerned about walking through unsafe neighborhoods, especially following after-school activities after dark. So for their day of social action, 130 students marched to City Hall where Mariam and others testified to city leaders about why more children needed transit passes to get to school. The Seattle Transit Riders Union supported the children; one leader told the Seattle Times, “Fifteen dollars per week, or $54 for a monthly pass, is too much for low-income families to pay just to get their kids to school. For many low-income students, public transit means freedom.”
Mariam became part of the Seattle School District-approved pilot program at the start of the school year giving transit passes to 50 low-income students. With the bus pass in hand, Mariam was getting to school on time and her grades soared to all As and Bs. She and other students shared the impact the transit passes had made in their lives at a Town Hall-style meeting they organized. The City Council then approved the 2016 budget, including $1 million for bus passes for middle and high school students who are eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program and live one to two miles from their school. Mariam says, “Freedom Schools was the most amazing thing that happened to me ever.”
Communities and children across the country need to believe they can stay on the march towards justice, just as Mariam Bayo is doing. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be proud of the Seattle students’ actions to break down a barrier to children getting to school.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org