Philadelphia MAG-Net member, Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) was started in 1995 by a group of young people who were concerned about not receiving the quality of education that they deserved. They decided that if school reform were going to be successful, it would have to involve students as leaders for change. Since that time, the organization has grown from the dream of a few students to a strong organization that has allowed students themselves to become a major force for improving schools in Philadelphia. Over 3,500 young people have completed the Student Union’s leadership development program. These young people learned how to bring people together to solve problems. Many of its former members have become active in organizing, youth work and advocacy in their colleges and communities.
PSU leader and organizer Sharron Synder took time to answer some questions about PSU's work, mainstream media, and the benefits of being part of a national network like Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net).
1) Please tell us about yourself, what school do you go to and how did you get involved PSU?
My name is Sharron Synder and I go to Benjamin Franklin High School and I’m in the 11th grade. The Philadelphia Student Union is where I’m at 190% of the time. I come here every day after school. I met one of PSU’s chapter organizers at my school when he gave a presentation in my classroom. Then, I came to the chapter meeting at my school. He made me understand that students have a voice. We do have an important voice; no one had ever told me that before. Students need to be out there rallying and giving speeches, because all these changes to education affect us the most.
2) What is the state of public schools in Philadelphia, how is this reflective of a national trend and attack on public schools?
They say public schools in Philadelphia are “failing” and so they are closing 23 of them next year. They are not succeeding because they have been taking money away from education for decades. They are currently building more prisons and closing schools. They passed a budget that eliminates arts, sports, music, counselors, nurses and much more. They only thing they are keeping in our schools are cops. Can you even call that a school anymore?
Sadly, this is happening all over the United States, mainly in black and Latino communities and poor communities. I went in Chicago to show solidarity with people there when they were trying to stop their schools from being closed. We marched to every school that was closing. I saw all the people that are being affected. They people affected are black, like me. This is a national attack on our communities.
3)Tell me about PSU and the role that it's played in organizing students to fight public school closings. What is their purpose, goals and mission?
The Philadelphia Student Union is training young people to talk to the public and inform all the students about what is going on in their schools. We help other students understand that the people in power are taking away everything and leaving us with crumbs. PSU gives students the tools and skills we need to organize to fight for quality public education. PSU exists to build the power of young people to demand a high quality education in the Philadelphia public school system. We are a youth led organization and we make positive changes in the short term by learning how to organize to build power. We also work toward becoming life-long learners and leaders who can bring diverse groups of people together to address the problems that our communities face.
4) What do you think about the mainstream media's coverage of this issue?
I think that the news has been covering this issue surprisingly well. Most people that have interviewed me at rallies have told me that they are proud of what we are doing. I was on MSNBC a few weeks ago.
However, I feel that they have not exposed the root causes of the problems we face, like school funding formulas. They cover this issue when we hold a big walkout, but when we struggle daily in our schools for basic resources, the news isn’t always there.
5) How have you all been using social media to tell your own stories of how public school closings would affect students?
When we led a 5,000 student walkout, we used a lot of social media. We made our own hashtag, #walkout215, and put it all over twitter. Its great for everyone because lots of people have twitter and facebook, both adults and students. When I post something about a rally or PSU on facebook, lots of different people from different schools get to see what we are up to and it keeps spreading. We also have our radio show, On Blast, where we tell stories of the way these budget cuts and school closings affect us. Social media is a really important tool for us because it’s easy for everyone to use.
6) How could a national network like the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) that you are a member of continue to support your great work?
We need to share more stories from a national perspective because this is a national problem, not just a Philadelphia problem. We need to make more connections between all the budget cuts and schools closings all over the nation. It’s helpful when we can hear about movements for educational justice from everywhere.
7) What is the vision for PSU and public schools in the next 3 years?
Our vision for the next three years is to stop school closings for the next three years and beyond. We also need to get the money that they are investing in prisons into education. We need to get that money to make our schools better so that all students want to go to them. We need schools that are not just cops and teachers, so we can stop the School-to-Prison pipeline.