Inspired Youth Activists Ready to Make Their Mark on the World


Varesh Gorabi

Kate Harris (left) from Highland and Jasper Clayton (right) from SPA during the Youth Activism and Leadership Conference

Varesh Gorabi, Staff Writer and Photographer

Vagueness surrounds the early years of life in elementary school, but some events don’t fade. Kids as young as four years old are beginning to carry bricks of labels. Trouble-maker. Bad kid. Failure. From things like throwing a snowball to “disrupting” class and getting suspended, harsher consequences can follow. These events don’t fade; studies have shown that one suspension leads to more, and that 49% of students who have been suspended three times before high school will most likely drop out. One in three inmates in Utah are high school dropouts.

Many students would read this and go no further. However, youth activism is on the rise.

Activism is “moving negative energy into positive directions,” as said by Professor Emily Chiang. It’s the sense of belonging to a larger community, and recognizing that bond. Empowerment roots from changing the negativity found in society into something positive, something worth fighting for.

Professor Emily Chiang from the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law spoke at the first Youth Activism and Leadership Conference (YLAC) on Saturday, January 24th. This day-long event at the U’s Business College was hosted by the ACLU of Utah and Salt Lake Peer Court along with Teen Council (of Planned Parenthood). It drew many young and zealous activists from throughout the state, ready to learn and then act about the issues they care about.

“It was awesome being able to see how many people are passionate about this issue and are willing to take the time to learn how to make change,” Marelina Kubica, a senior at West High and a planner of the event, said.

The focus of the conference was the school-to-prison-pipeline (STPP) and providing the tools necessary for student activism.

The STPP is the one-way direction from being a student in school to a criminal in prison. Even one suspension increases youths’ dropout rates, and those who do drop out, are eight times more likely to go to prison. In 2013, one out of every five students in Utah dropped out of high school.

During the conference, questions were raised like: Does the punishment fit the crime for some disciplinary actions? Students were given a card with their offense and their punishment (as an exercise during Nubia Pena’s presentation), and they were all based on real cases. Many students were shocked, and even more so when they heard the stories about little kids being arrested. For Kate Harris, a sophomore at Highland High, it was the story of a five-year-old boy, Michael Davis, with ADHD being zip tied (hands and feet) by a police officer after reacting to his touch, that affected her the most.

Students also shared their own personal stories of being suspended for trivial or misunderstood actions.

After learning about the injustices happening in schools across the nation, as well as to minorities in Utah, youth engaged in writing letters to Legislators and participated in the “white board project”. Students wrote why they thought education was important and why the STPP should be stopped on white boards to express their voices on the issue*.

With help from Anna Brower, a Public Policy Advocate for the ACLU of Utah, students learned about the legislative process and when they can actively voice their opinions on future bills.

Along with advice on how to interact with the media professionally and a talk on knowing your rights, students met a panel of adult leaders and were able to question them on topics of interest, including the school-to-prison-pipeline. Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Rep. Angela Romero, Senator Aaron Osmond and former Rep. David Litvack, director of CJAC** all talked about their on-going projects and gave advice to the young activists.

All in all, the conference inspired students to take action in their communities.

“The conference lit the spark I’ve always had for activism,” said Harris.

At the end of the day, students were invited to come up to the microphone and talk about the changes they were going to make. Responses included STPP awareness, ending girl-boy choice dances in support of LGBTQ students, writing to legislators and attending legislative sessions.

The day was filled with youth bursting to make a change in their schools and communities, and now they have the tools to do so.

“The community of youth involved in activism and leadership is so strong and they all truly care about making a difference. To me, it’s very inspiring. I hope to make a difference someday,” said Harris.

For more information about the STPP, your rights as students and future events, visit


*These can be seen using #YLAC15

**Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Advisory Council