Organizing New York Students to Fight for Education Equity
An Interview with Christian Singleton, Spring Valley Youth Organizer, NYCLU Education Policy Center
Deep-rooted racial disparities in educational opportunities persist around the state, with East Ramapo Central School District (ERCSD) in Rockland County being an especially acute case. For years, the NYCLU has been fighting entrenched forces on the school board intent on depriving Black and Brown public high school students and English Language Learners of the same resources, conditions, academic access, and activities that their white private school counterparts enjoy. The NYCLU has been doing youth organizing around the state for more than 20 years and our program in Spring Valley provides public high school students in the ERCSD with resources and tools to organize effectively around civil rights and civil liberties in their schools and communities. Student activism is a crucial piece of the struggle to achieve quality education and equitable outcomes for students of color in East Ramapo, and across New York.
Christian Singleton is in his second year as the NYCLU’s Spring Valley youth organizer, working with the student ambassadors in East Ramapo and laying the groundwork for a campaign that we hope will continue for years to come. In his role, Christian works with the NYCLU team and our NAACP partners to develop directly-impacted high school students, educators, parents, and other community members in the ERCSD as effective organizers and mobilize them to advocate for improvements to public education in the district. He meets weekly with 25 active program participants to help the students identify goals and learn how to address them. After graduating from Penn State University with a degree in international politics, Christian worked as a childcare counselor and assistant at the Martin Luther King Multi-Purpose Center before joining the NYCLU in October 2021 at a critical moment in our East Ramapo work.
We spoke with Christian, a long-time resident of West Haverstraw in Rockland County, about what he likes most about this work and the importance of equitable education in young people’s lives.
NYCLU: How would you define your role as Spring Valley Youth Organizer? What does the work look like?
Christian Singleton: As a youth organizer, I’m working with the high school students in the area who are in our East Ramapo Ambassadors Program. The work is very personal. One of the most important things as an organizer is building relationships. Even though I grew up in Rockland County and I had friends who grew up in East Ramapo, I am not a member of the East Ramapo community, so when I first joined it was about building trust. When I was first invited to community meetings and spaces, I never came in with the mindset of, “OK, because I work for the NYCLU I have to take charge.” I just wanted them to know that I’m there to help them. And a lot of great relationships have developed with community members over my time here. Their trust in me also allowed me to be able to create a program with the high school students. I have a great relationship with the students: They trust me, we talk about stuff in meetings, and I always confirm that this is a safe space—you can speak your mind here and be yourself.
You have to stay prepared, because there are a lot of issues in the district, and stuff tends to come out of nowhere. My first two weeks on the job, one of the high schools in the area, Spring Valley, had to be shut down due to black mold and asbestos. So I found myself in the position where I’m getting my bearings in the organization and suddenly I’m trying to navigate starting to build a youth base when one of their main access points is unavailable.
What’s the best part about working with young people?
CS: I’ve had many years of experience working with young people: I’ve been a camp counselor, and before the NYCLU, I worked in an after-school program. The best thing about working with youth has to be their curiosity, their willingness to learn more, not just about outside things but about themselves, as well. I like helping them to learn that they are capable human beings. They see adults in this profession at protests, at marches—and, of course, during the Black Lives Matter movement, youth were watching what was going on and they weren’t sure if that’s a place for them. I just want them to know that there’s always a place for them in this world. The stuff that they bring to the table is equally as important as what their parents, teachers, or other adults bring, and they shouldn’t feel like they have to play backseat on issues.
Why is doing this work to achieve equal educational opportunities for students of color and English Language Learners important to you?
CS: I grew up in a household where my parents really showed me the importance of education and that everyone deserves this right. Education isn’t all about getting straight As and being at the top of the class—education comes in many different ways. I want to make sure that the youth have an opportunity for the future because they are our future. They shouldn’t feel like they don’t belong in a place. Also, education really opens a lot of doors for people. It really allows them to brighten their horizons, find stuff that they might like in the future. It’s all about being given that opportunity to be something in life, not feeling like they have to be stagnant.
You’ve been organizing since the fall of 2021, and this school year (2022-23) is the first full year of the organizing program. Looking at this coming year, what do you hope to accomplish?
CS: I want to motivate more students and create more spaces for youth. The majority of the youth I work with are members of the drama club. That circle is very tight-knit, but they’ve spoken about wanting to create spaces and opportunities for students from other groups in school. They want to create a platform for the English Language Learner students, students who just immigrated to the country or just moved to the district. They have a right to speak on issues. They want to brighten their horizons and let other students know about these opportunities, that there’s more to do than just going to school. They also want to create unity amongst the students. We’ve all been in high school, we know the different groups—but if they have a common goal it’s powerful, there’s strength in numbers. Another goal for me is more participation in school board meetings. I understand that the scheduled biweekly board meetings can be a challenge for high school students, but I want to see a consistent amount of people at school board meetings because it will show that this community wants to put in the effort, which sends a message to the children that the community is supporting them.
You’re in your second year in this role with NYCLU. What professional goals do you hope to achieve in terms of social justice or your career beyond this?
CS: Right now, my goal is to progress more in the organization, learn more about the other work that’s going on. I could see myself working on education five years down the line but maybe there’s another issue that might arise that I want to take on and see where I can help out in terms of organizing. Social justice work is something that has always drawn my attention. I’ve really enjoyed learning how grassroots organizations work to lead these causes and bring change. Again, this is not only my second year in the organization but also my second year as an organizer, so I know there’s still a lot I have to learn and a lot that I want to learn.
What’s the thing you do outside of your activism that feeds you?
CS: One thing that drew me into this is, ever since I was young, I’ve always had a love of history and politics. So when I’m not working, I tend to enjoy watching documentaries and reading books, just learning about historical moments and of course seeing the impact of the change. But now, as an organizer, it helps me learn what happened behind the scenes to lead to that big historical moment, what led to that change.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)