Radical Politics and 2020: Students Take on Their Own Education

Before this year, Kayla Kelly, a first-year student at American University in Washington, D.C., would not have considered herself politically engaged. She didn’t feel that her high school provided her with the tools to understand our current political climate, and she did not make it a priority to keep up with the news. But the events of 2020 — the pandemic, recession, presidential election, and Black Lives Matter uprisings — made Kelly want to be more involved in grassroots movements. So she started reading radical revolutionary texts, like activist and scholar Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? and Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. She started a separate Instagram account to share what she was learning about topics like Indigenous land sovereignty and prison abolition with friends in an accessible way. She even created an online platform, Behind Books, that allowed people to send books and letters to individuals who are currently incarcerated. 

“I realized how incredibly dangerous it was for me to remain complacent and that we can no longer heavily rely on politicians or the government to meet our needs,” Kelly told Teen Vogue. “I went from being a confused moderate to a radical leftist within the span of eight months.”

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Kelly is one of thousands of students and young people across the country who learned the importance of political education this year. According to Deana Ayers, the political education coordinator with Black Visions Collective in Minneapolis, political education — or learning about the history of labor movements, liberation work, and anti-capitalism — is imperative for everyone, but young people especially. “There’s a lot of talk about young people being the future, or young people leading revolutionary change, and I think for that to happen, young people need to understand politics,” they told Teen Vogue. “Understanding electoral processes isn’t enough; we have to understand the different theories that exist around liberation work and revolutionary work. When young people embrace political education, we can map out the tools, methods, and strategies that work best for the kind of organizing we’re doing.”

This is exactly what many young people have done throughout 2020. While some students, like Kelly, became politically educated by joining reading groups, others learned about anti-capitalism firsthand by leading anti-racist protests or creating mutual aid funds in their communities. Throughout this year, youth-led organizations such as Good Kids Mad City in Chicago, BYP100 in Washington, D.C., and URGE throughout the South and Midwest have distributed needed aid, led protests, and demanded that community-led safety efforts replace heavily armed police forces. Over the summer, Black Lives Matter protests brought teenagers across the country into the streets to protest racist police violence. On many college campuses, students went on strike to protest unfair grading systems, limited on-campus housing, and loss of jobs during the pandemic. In California, for example, students at several state schools, including the University of California Santa Cruz and the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) went on strike to incentivize higher wages for student workers and remove police from UC campuses. Megan Kan, a junior at UCSB, told Teen Vogue that seeing her university ignore the demands of students was a learning moment for her.

“What I would attribute the beginning of my greater interest in political education this year would be the COLA [cost of living adjustment] grad student movement,” she said. “I started getting involved in UCSB 4 COLA’s undergraduate committee, took part in direct actions, and went to the teach-ins and meetings that grad students held at the picket line, which first introduced me to what organizing can look like. So far, college hasn’t provided me with adequate political education since many of my classes introduced revolutionary ideas but only through the lens of academia and liberalism. Most of the political education I consider lasting and meaningful has been accomplished with community members and other students in spite of these institutions.”

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