Malaena Agustin, 17, is a member of Sunnyside High School’s Doctor Academy and vice president of Sunnyside’s spirit group, the Wildcat Wave.
When it comes to making changes, Agustin said, “As a student, you have to actually want it and be able to seek it yourself.”
But throughout the valley, students like Agustin are struggling because they can’t vote in their own school board elections, where the voting age is 18.
A coalition of groups in Fresno is hoping to change that.
Combining their collective strength, Fresno Women Empowered and the Fresno Youth Commission have taken the first steps in proposing lowering the voting age to 16 for Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) board member elections. They are calling the campaign #16toVote.
There have been a lot of changes at Fresno Unified School District this past year, from Superintendent Michael Hanson stepping down to the vote to finally recognize FUSD as a “Safe Space” school district. Hoping to capitalize on these changes, several local youth leaders and organizations are fighting to give students more of a say in what goes on in their district.
Currently, students say there is a clear disconnect between the board and the students they represent.
Neng Thao, a member of the Fresno Youth Commission, says there is a need for more communication and student representation. Thao, who is now 18 and a student at Edison High School, said that students have little awareness about what is happening on the school board.
“I hardly know them [the FUSD school board members] because I was unable to vote for them at the time,” he said, “I was not aware of their visions and ideals. I’m sure that’s the same situation with other students as well.”
Fellow Youth Commission member and Edison High School student, Gabriel Murillo, 16, agrees.
“There’s currently a disconnect between students and the school board, and as a result, students are not given the best education that they can get,” Murillo said.
Students say there is a danger in a board that makes all of the decisions for students without being accountable to the students themselves.
“The lack of youth representation can easily be solved if they have direct input,” Miranda Lara, 16, of the Youth Commission, said.
Marissa Vang, 18, has been a member of the Youth Commission since its inception and is also a member of Women Empowered, an organization in Fresno made up of women wanting change in their city.
Lowering the age to 16 would give high school students the ability to decide who they want to represent them. According to Vang, there could be other benefits as well.
“There’ve been many studies on how the earlier you vote, the more likely you’ll vote in the long run and the more frequently you’ll vote,” Vang said.
Students say it’s a matter of representation: Every decision made about the FUSD affects them so they should have a say in their own education.
Julie Bounchareune, youth leadership organizer for Women Empowered, said this campaign is vitally important to the youth of Fresno.
“School board members make decisions that directly impact students, therefore students should have a vote on which school board member they want to elect to represent their district,” Bounchareune said, noting that youth in Berkeley recently organized to pass Measure Y1 which reduced the voting age to 16 for their school board members.
#16toVote’s success in Fresno could depend on the role youth leaders play in the campaign.
Sher Moua, program manager for Fresno Boys and Men of Color, said, “They feel like students should have a voice in choosing board members to represent them because these elected officials are making policy decisions that directly affect their education and lives.”
For young people in Fresno, having a say in their education isn’t seen as a privilege, but a right.