Jul. 10, 2017 8:58 am

At Philadelphia Student Union, teens’ voices come first

Executive Director Hiram Rivera discusses training the next generation of activist leaders and how political organizing has changed since the election.

Students protesting in 2016.

(Photo via

Hiram Rivera became involved in youth activism in 2004 “kind of by accident.”

The executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) began his career as a youth media instructor in New Haven at Youth Rights Media where he was placed through AmeriCorps. He had run out of money to continue school and was searching for employment.

There, he trained students in video production, making documentaries and organizing campaigns around education and juvenile justice issues.

Rivera now works with PSU students ages 14 to 19 who advocate for education reform in the Philadelphia public school system. Their goals include ending school privatization, closures and the school-to-prison pipeline — and ultimately gaining equitably funded education.

“Oftentimes young people are the most impacted by the majority of policies being passed,” Rivera said. “[But] they are voiceless. They are not the ones being asked how they’re feeling.”

PSU has organized several successful campaigns like #Walkout215 in 2013 when more than 2,000 students walked out of class to protest budget cuts and underfunding. In 2012, the PSU’s Campaign for Nonviolent Schools was successful in implementing changes to the Student Code of Conduct that limited suspensions and expulsions.

The union has also advocated for restorative practice programs as an alternative to out-of-school-suspension, pushed back against school closures, drafted the education portion for the Black Lives Matter agenda and bailed out incarcerated mothers for Mama’s Bail Out Day.

(Photo via

Direct methods of organizing range from holding dialogues and distributing surveys in schools to protesting. Those actions must “put young people at the front and center” and be “creative and incorporate youth culture,” Rivera said. Young people in the program also gain leadership opportunities like public speaking, writing blog posts and running social media.

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The majority of the learning process for organization and advocacy is trial and error, Rivera said. Taking risks and learning from experiences that weren’t as successful as well as getting advice from other veteran organizers has helped PSU to grow.

But ultimately, it’s about the students. Learning from them to gain new ideas and perspectives is crucial, he said.

“The best strategy for organizing young people is to listen, to create a space where young people’s voices matter in a real way,” he said.

Making it fun and establishing trust through consistency are other core elements of working with youth.

“[Many young people] have a hard time trusting adults,” Rivera said. “So many people have let them down. They need to have a space to speak freely, dream, think of new ideas without being judged or pushed away.”

When they are challenged, it must “come from a place of love and care and investment,” he added.

(Photo via

Activism and the political climate have changed since the last presidential election.

“What has changed is the level of caution and fear and apprehension,” Rivera said. “A sense of urgency has increased as well. … A lot of people who are taking politics a little more seriously.”

For instance, he said, young people are asking more questions about how policy is passed and about their futures, and it’s politicizing people in ways they weren’t before.

When engaging with politics, it is vital to have diversity in leadership.

“We all experience the world differently based off the multiple identities we all carry,” Rivera said. “To have as clear a picture as possible of what equity could really look like is going to take the voices of the most marginalized.”

The main objective of youth activism is to “develop a generation of critical thinkers” who “represent the most marginalized members of our society,” he said. “It is to transform the way they see the world [and] foster a sense of social and personal responsibility.”


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