Justice Now

Solutions in Sight: Social Justice

International Student Activism Alliance

A Conversation with Ben Smilowitz

October 1997

International Student Activism Alliance (ISAA) was founded in November 1996 by three Connecticut high school students: Ben Smilowitz, Jamie Rinaldi, and Abe Walker. In a very short time they have managed to put together a highly effective student network of ISAA chapters. They are working together and individually on a wide range of student issues. ISAA is about students taking charge of their lives, using their voice and making a difference!

The InSite: What was your motivation to start the International Student Activism Alliance?

Ben: I was at conference at Springfield, Massachusetts. There were students from all over the northeast who were working on projects. A lot of us were working on the same things and could have shared information. So back in November ['96] I started the ISAA with Jamie Rinaldi and Abe Walker. After we got things together we were looking for funding because there was no way in the world that we could pay for $150 a month phone bills and a few thousand dollars postage every year. So we were looking around and we were working on "Zero Tolerance" policies [Zero Tolerance: Automatic suspensions for some offenses in school] trying to show that they were unconstitutional. I called the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU]. You know, they really work for rights for the average citizen. So we were talking about "Zero Tolerance" and I told them about the ISAA. Joe Grabarz, the Executive Director there, was very enthusiastic about what we were doing. He offered to assist us. So we're really working in a partnership with them. The students run this organization. We make all the decisions. We choose the issues we want to address. We hold the events and we publish the newsletter. We completely coordinate this whole project. The Connecticut Civil Liberties Union advises us when we ask for help.

The students run this organization.
We make all the decisions.
We choose the issues...

TI: Were you always politically active?

Ben: I went to a private Jewish school. We had small classes and it focused a lot on volunteering. I was raising money for the school, volunteering at nursing homes and fund raising for other charitable groups. So I was doing a lot of that kind of stuff. I met my State Senator and he asked me if I wanted to campaign for him.

TI: How did you meet him?

Ben: Well, [laughing] I showed up on his doorstep one day asking for money for a charitable organization.

TI: [laughing] Well you must be quite a salesman if he spotted your talent!

Ben: We talked for a while and when I was told who he was I was very interested. We became pretty good friends.

TI: So you went to work on his campaign?

Ben: Yeah. That was probably 3rd or 4th grade.

TI: What were you doing, stuffing envelopes?

Ben: Yeah, but I also went with him to Stop and Shop to hand out fliers and soon I could do it on my own. Then I went door to door in the district. I tried to keep away from only stuffing envelopes because that wasn't what I liked to do.

TI: What do you like to do?

Ben: I like to interact with people and try to convince them a certain way. And for those people to have an eight year old ask them to vote, it was an experience for them!

TI: What was the primary issue in that campaign?

Ben: He was the Chair of Education and he was a State Senator. [Now he's the President of the Connecticut State Senate]. So he's been working on education a lot. Every year we'd be dealing with different issues. I wasn't so keen on the issues back then, now I have a little more of a grip on what's going on.

TI: What are you working on now?

Ben: ISAA is trying to get a student on the State Board of Education with voting rights. That's important. Ten other states currently have students who serve on their State Boards of Education. A few of those states have students who vote, like Massachusetts has had a student voting since 1975! California, Maryland... have student board members who vote. I think North Carolina might, I'm not sure. The rest of them [states with students on their Boards of Education] don't have voting rights.

ISAA is trying to get a student on the State Board of Education with voting rights.

TI: And the rest of the states don't even have students on their Boards of Education?

Ben: Right! So right now we're working on a campaign in Vermont to put a student on the State Board there. And in Minnesota we're working on a campaign to get voting rights for the student who is already on the State Board of Education. She's actually leading the campaign there. Florida and New Jersey, and Rhode Island are just getting started too. And in Connecticut [where I'm from] we're trying to establish two positions for students with voting rights on the State Board of Education.

TI: What have you found to be the reactions of other adult Members of these Boards to the idea of getting students in there with voting rights?

Ben: Well the spokesman at the Connecticut Governor's office who originally said, "We not opposed to it." is now saying, "We don't see anything wrong with it." It's really a lot more positive.

TI: It sounds like a very subtle distinction, but you have learned the political language.

Ben: Right!

TI: What happened to change the Governor's mind?

Ben: We've had a lot of media in the state and that certainly helped. They saw that it wasn't only one student working on it. And they never came into the arena saying they were opposed to it. They always said they'd consider it. Now they have nothing opposed to it. That's really great. A good reason for it is because it's students from all over the state working on this. 55 chapters in Connecticut are working on this same issue. And that's 55 schools...out of 180. And not only them but there are other students and other people who have heard it on the news since last April. So it's a huge "grassroots campaign" and if you have that kind of support it's really hard for lawmakers to turn you down.

So it's a huge "grassroots campaign" and if you have that kind of support it's really hard for lawmakers to turn you down.

TI: So who has the final vote on whether the state of Connecticut actually get two positions for students with voting right on the State Board of Education? The Board itself?

Ben: Actually I helped to write a bill before the end of last school year. It basically says we're going to add two seats to the State Board of Education. In that bill, I only mentioned that there would be one student, but now to help insure diversity, the campaign is focused on getting two students to have full voting and membership rights. The extent of those voting capabilities is under scrutiny now. We want full voting rights. Some lawmakers want full voting rights for the students and some want partial - meaning no students voting on legal or personnel issues. The President of the Senate, Sen. Kevin Sullivan, wrote me a letter in favor of full voting rights for the student members. So that's going to be decided on in the next little while.

TI: And what's your view?

Ben: I definitely support full voting rights! I don't think you can be a member of a Board of Education and really consider yourself a member if you're not a voting member. We are working with the State Board members and the legislators. The Chair of the State Board of Education is all in favor of it. And we have people in both parties [The President of the Senate is a Democrat. The Legislator who is writing the bill is a Republican]. And the specifics will be figured out in the next little while. We're going to be gathering support together, holding public hearings. And have Student Lobby Day at the State capitol where students from all over the state will come to Hartford and walk from office to office and urge their legislators to vote for this bill. Once this is "on the table" in the Legislature, we might try to hire a bus and get people to come in and try to lobby their legislators to vote for this.

TI: This is very exciting! It just points out that when students join together they can make things happen!

Ben: We have a lot more power than a lot of students think right now. The perception is now that we can't vote [in local, state or national elections] so what can we do? And other people think "What kind of issues can we deal with?" I just read an article that said that people think that all the issues were "used up" by people in the '60s and there's nothing else to work on. But there are tons of things to work on. Student's rights. Right now in Illinois a bill was just defeated by the Governor that would give freedom to school newspapers to publish what they want. It traveled all the way through the legislature by a huge margin, and the Governor vetoed it. So we'd like to respond to that. And every state should have students on their State Boards of Education. And schools start way too early! Why should we have to wake up at 6 o'clock every morning, you know, six hours of sleep every night really isn't enough. There are a lot issues that we have to address. They range from health issues to every day issues for students in school. If we don't speak up, lawmakers will speak up for us! And what's the good of someone who sits at a desk all day making decisions that affect us without really understanding what our needs are?

We have a lot more power than a lot of students think...
Want to find out more about the ISAA?

Email ISAA at: [email protected]

Visit the ISAA website at: http://www.studentactivism.org

Write to ISAA at: Galen Price, National Chairman
P.O. Box 1041
Lewisville, NC 27023

Tele: (336) 946-2377


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