Declaring Their Truth

by John McDonald

The Declaration Project at UCLA

On a recent gray Saturday morning, while many teenagers were still sleeping in their beds, a group of young students from across the Los  Angeles region gathered with local and state elected officials at UCLA to take part in a radical act. Following the example set long ago by the signers of the Declaration of Independence, these students came forth to “name the long train of abuses,” declare the causes,” and propose a course of action to address key issues affecting their lives, their schools and their communities.

The students were at UCLA to take part in The Declaration Project, an initiative of UCLA Center X to further understanding of government and engage young people in the civic process. The intent is to go beyond the usual high school government class
in which students learn about the structures of government. Instead, through the use of participatory research, the Declaration Project provides young people with powerful analytic tools and encourages them to be active participants — political agents engaged in the democratic process of identifying and addressing injustices.  In doing so it demonstrates that academic subjects — history, writing, statistics, and others can be used to understand and transform the world we live in.

UCLA Professor John Rogers

“The Declaration project supports high school students to identify, examine, and speak publicly about the challenges they are experiencing and strategies for addressing these problems,” says John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA and the faculty director of UCLA Center X.  “Invoking the history of the Declaration reminds us that we all should be committed to calling out our collective grievances and taking action to realize a better and more just world.   This is an approach to civic education that casts young people as
informed agents of change.”

Saturday’s event builds on a 3-day workshop hosted by UCLA Center X in June of 2018 bringing together  social studies teachers from 25 high schools across Los Angeles with UCLA historians, leading scholars and activists to develop tools to engage students in systematic investigations of important social issues. Using the Declaration of Independence as a model, the workshop helped prepare teachers to engage students in an action civics project.

Emma Hipolito, Director, UCLA CenterX Teacher Education Program

“Our goal was to support teachers as they engaged their students in the identification and exploration of pressing issues facing their school communities, said Emma Hipolito, Director of the Teacher Education Program at UCLA Center X.  “The Declaration Project provided mentoring and content and curricular resources needed to help teachers further learning that elevates student voice.  This great project fosters the social justice mission of the UCLA Teacher Education Program by bringing transformative educators together in a professional learning community.”

In the Fall of 2018, the teachers began to work with students to begin to identify issues of concern, conduct research and develop presentations. Last December, more than 200 students who had participated in the project came to UCLA for a Youth Summit to declare their grievances and highlight their plans for change. On Saturday April 27, selected teams of students again met at UCLA to present their findings to each other and to two school board members and a state senator who offered comments and suggestions for their declarations.

San Fernando High School Students Alejandra Garcia, Katia Llerenas, Margaret Barbosa, Cecilia Diaz, Ana Marquez

A team of students from San Fernando High School “Declared” their concerns over the educational obstacles confronting low income students. Their research about students at their schools showed that while most students (71%) want to go to college, just over half (51%) believe they will. More than half of students surveyed (54.8%) viewed personal responsibilities such as having to work as an obstacle. One –fifth of students said they had obtained jobs to financially help their families. More than three-quarters (78.1%) of responding students said they had worried about their parent’s ability to pay the rent. Nearly three quarters of those (71.9%) said that seeing their parents worry affects their studying. Paying the rent is a rising issue, with more than 8 in ten respondents saying their parents rent had gone up in the past year.

This research was personal. More than 90 percent of  San Fernando High School are from low income backgrounds. Several of the student presenters were personally experiencing these obstacles as were many of their peers. They told their stories of having to work, of having help take care of brothers and sisters while their parents worked, of having to help with the cooking and cleaning, while they also tried to keep up with their school work and hoping to go to college.

‘Their declaration had a powerful effect” Rogers said. “By conducting surveys and interviews, they were able to demonstrate that these problems were broadly experienced.  But the personal details in their stories illuminated why and how these problems matter.   By connecting it with the personal lives and community, they not only can help people to understand the problem, but maybe they can also make them care”.

The conclusion of their research is that obstacles such as having to work may prevent low income students from obtaining a higher education. Without additional resources, they say than many low income student of color may lack the support and encouragement needed to succeed. Among their recommendations, they advocate for affordable housing and enforcement of rent control, and want students to be involved in the decisions made by policymakers.

Other student declarations focused on issues of bullying, the impact of dress codes, teen suicide in Los Angeles, and creating safe spaces on campus for girls of color. A project by a team of students at Santa Monica High School addressed the needs and contributions of English language learners. Among their findings and recommendations –the students come from a wide range of places and have different experiences – and schools need to acknowledge and celebrate the assets they bring to our classrooms and schools.

“I appreciated the ways that students combined a sophisticated use of evidence with their own personal stories to highlight problems such as teen suicide, or gender discrimination, or bullying.

“My recent research has highlighted the ways that division and hostility from our broader political environment have seeped into the culture of many high schools,” Rogers concluded.  “These respectful exchanges among students and between students and elected officials left me with a renewed sense of hope for civic life.   We need more opportunities for youth to join in dialogue with civic leaders to address shared concerns.”

The Declaration Project event was also attended by Los Angeles Unified School District board member Kelly Gonez, California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, and Pasadena Unified School District board member Michelle Richardson Bailey. All offered encouragement and advice to the students.

California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo



California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, a long time union organizer who as a state senator is also a member of the Senate Education Committee, also offered words of encouragement. But it may have been her wise and specific advice that was most important. “Pay attention to the new budget,” she said.




Pasadena Unified School Board member Michelle Richardson Bailey



Pasadena Unified School Board member Michelle Richardson Bailey urged the students from John Muir High School, which she represents, to think critically about their work and develop their proposal. She also offered to meet with them again to be of help.





Kelly Gonez, who was a teacher in LAUSD schools in the San Fernando Valley before joining the LAUSD board, asked the students to “think about their experiences and about how those experiences interact with the world.” She also encouraged them to be specific in working with policymakers in order to hold them accountable. “Being specific is the best thing possible,” she said.

Students from San Fernando High School with LAUSD Board Member Kelly Gonez