Grantee Spotlight

The Philadelphia Student Union Builds Membership To Expand Student Organizing

PSU Member Nuwar Ahmed speaks at a June rally in Harrisburg

PSU Member Nuwar Ahmed speaks at a June rally in Harrisburg

“Students feel cheated,” says Hiram Rivera, executive director

of Philadelphia Student Union. “They know the education they are offered in Philadelphia doesn’t set them up for success.”

This past year, Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), a Racial and Economic Justice Fund grantee, organized multiple rallies to challenge the drastic school closures, budget cuts, and faculty layoffs on the table for city schools.

At a recent protest in Harrisburg, PSU student-member Nuwar Ahmed shared her reasons for organizing: “It is not my job to find money for my school district. My job is to go to school and work my hardest so I can move up in the world. If you’re not doing your job it’s practically impossible for me to do mine!”

To effectively address this pressing issue, PSU is starting more student-run chapters in schools citywide. Rivera, who became executive director in 2011, aims to empower students as catalysts for change. “Young people have proven their capability to lead,” says Rivera. “The walkouts are a good example of that.”

In May, a group of high school students organized a small-scale walkout in protest of the School Reform Commission’s inadequate budget. When they decided to plan a second, larger walkout, the students approached their peers in PSU to learn organizing skills that would maximize the walkout’s impact. PSU staff responded by hosting a training session in which students developed a strategic campaign. As a result, PSU and the new student members staged a walkout of 3,000 students from 25 different schools citywide. Theymarched to City Hall, where, as Rivera recalls with pride, “their shouts were loud enough to be heard by City Council members inside at an education hearing.”

PSU’s reputation as a leading force for education reform is well deserved, given its long history of changing policies in Philadelphia schools. As part of the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools, PSU students won the right to help train school police officers and to replace punitive classroom policies with restorative justice practices. Addressing issues at the classroom, city, and state levels, PSU students advance wide-scale reform. As Rivera says, “PSU is committed to building the school system that we want.”