For years, students have been organizing and speaking out to affect the changes they want to see in the world — and not seeking approval or assistance to do so. But sometimes, adults give them platforms to be change agents, and that was the case this past week at the Tom Tom Festival.

In the past month, Charlottesville High School students led a walkout after a threat against African American and Hispanic students, and middle school students from Charlottesville and Albemarle County staged a rally for sustainable climate policies. The past year saw nationwide coordination of students participating in the March for Our Lives, spearheaded by survivors of the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. One of those organizers, Jaclyn Corin, was a keynote speaker at Tom Tom’s Youth Innovation Conference.

Also last week, Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, commended Charles Alexander, a motivational and educational author and speaker who was himself a change-maker in his youth as one of the Charlottesville Twelve.

Jaclyn Corin, a survivor of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, spoke at this week’s Tom Tom Festival about youth activism. Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods/Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Students present pitches

Sponsored by the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development, the Manning Family Foundation and ReinventED, students from various schools competed in pitch challenges for business, innovation and ideas on how to improve the middle school experience.

Corin delivered a keynote speech on youth activism before engaging in a Q&A with UVa professor Catherine Bradshaw and joining a panel of judges for the innovation challenge.

“I was just like any other involved teenager,” Corin said. “I just felt this need to do something after such a tragedy and really grab onto the media attention we were getting and talk about what happened, but also use that attention to transition the conversation to something that would be productive and helpful for other communities to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, Corin organized a student trip to Tallahassee to lobby in support of gun reform legislation at the Capitol. She then coordinated with other Parkland survivors to arrange the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., as teens across the country conducted their own marches.

“There is a hero and change-maker in every person,” Corin said. “I am exhausted by the indifference and ineptitude and inspired by the desperate need for change, which is why I have been motivated to be a change-maker, and you can, too. We must be bold in our calls for change, intersectional in our demands for equity and safety and relentless in our quest for justice.”

Following her speaking engagement, Corin joined a panel that included local student, activist and author Zyahna Bryant to judge social innovation pitches.

Earlier in the conference, students had participated in a business pitch challenge, which was won by Hayes Elements; a specialized mudguard for bicycle wheels; and a challenge called “reimagining middle school,” for which participants received feedback.

Meanwhile, Corin and Bryant were part of the panel to select a winning innovation pitch. They decided on SleekSafety, a mobile app that discreetly allows users to contact a friend or family member if they are on a date in which they feel unsafe.

SleekSafety was created by Faith Beilanski and Charlais Ferguson, of Orange County High School. OCHS marketing teachers Pa’Trice Day Owens and Whitney Willbourne supervised the students and helped them to prepare for the competition.

“We are excited for our students,” Day Owens said. “They are creative, inspiring and professional. We look forward to seeing how they change the world.”

At a separate Tom Tom event on environmental policy, former U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., noted the effect of emerging voters and their influence on elected officials. He cited outspoken youth as part of the growing number of politicians pivoting their stances on climate change.

“I think these rising generations are going to heal our country’s politics and put the focus back on addressing challenges as opposed to partisan bickering and posturing,” Curbelo said. “This is a can-do generation. Sure, a little ambitious, but a generation that wants to see major challenges addressed for their benefit and for the benefit of the country and the world. I’m hopeful as more and more of them start registering to vote.”

The business pitch challenges offered cash prizes and mentorship from UVa’s iLab. The innovation challenge offered grant funding. Meanwhile, the Reimagining Middle School challenge was part of a larger, ongoing engagement strategy by the Curry School.

Another Tom Tom event, “Students as Change Agents: Bringing Participatory Budgeting to Schools,” featured a presentation by a woman who coordinated a pilot program at Charlottesville’s Walker Upper Elementary School last fall.

Serena Gruia, a consultant with Creative Might, secured $6,000 in funding from the CFA Institute to coordinate a participatory budget session at Walker. Over the course of the semester, students utilized some of their social studies class time to work in teams and design ideas for how to spend the money in a way that would most benefit their collective needs.

“All those elementary schools come together in one place [at Walker],” Gruia said. “I thought this would be a good testing ground for students to advocate for themselves once they revealed the needs they had across the class.”

She says the students took charge of their own organizational efforts and tasks as they developed their plans.

“The adults facilitated, but the students really did the work,” Gruia said.

With the starting point of, “How do we improve our experience at Walker?” the students collaborated to determine which desires and needs they shared. Ultimately, two top proposals were chosen: to develop sports tournaments within some of the physical education class times and the establishment of a school garden.

Gruia said some students became so inspired by the process, they took the initiative to form their own student government.

“I think this process of students from different backgrounds working on things they collectively decide is important brings them together in a way that is authentic,” she said. “It’s a way to cross and break down boundaries to be productive and create their own existence working together. It’s something we as adults struggle to do — to break down barriers and work together — but it’s something these students have been doing.”

Charles “Mr. Alex-Zan” Alexander. Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods/Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods/Charlottesville Tomorrow

A trailblazer is celebrated

Also last week was a commendation ceremony of Alexander, the local “info-trainer” widely known as Mr. Alex-Zan. In 1959, he was one of the first 12 African American students to be integrated into previously all-white Charlottesville schools.

The event was hosted by the Barrett Early Learning Center, where Toscano presented Alexander with a commemorative copy of House Joint Resolution 931, which referred to him as a “trailblazer,” and recognized his work in educational programming and community organizing.

The Charlottesville Twelve were the first black students to enter the city schools a few years after the initial 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

His autobiography, “The Skin is Just the Cover: Mr. Alex-Zan’s Story,” chronicles his experiences as one of the 12.

“We lived on 11th Street, and I could see Venable School from my backyard, but, of course, I couldn’t attend,” he said in an interview as he pointed to a picture of himself and his mother walking the steps of the school on his first day. “My family always stressed education, and I would always remind folks over the years, [as to] whether Venable shaped or molded me, I tell them that I had character and manners before I got there. It came from my family.”

Alexander said he didn’t encounter many issues at Venable Elementary other than an instance where some boys called him derogatory names before a teacher he reflects on fondly, Mrs. Miller, stepped in to defend him.

“I had some good experiences at Venable. People say I smile a lot, but I did have one incident. A real inspirational teacher named Mrs. Miller, who was my white second-grade teacher,” Alexander said. “I got into a small back and forth with two white students, and the father came to school looking for me. Mrs. Miller held the door and didn’t let him in.”

He also said she would put little notes in his backpack so that his mother had an update on how things were going in the newly desegregated school system.

In his adulthood, Alexander has led presentations and motivational speeches on kindness, open-mindedness and being a change-maker.

Alexander has organized countless social and cultural events, along with cartoon campaigns to advocate for kindness and peaceful political discourse.

One of his cartoons is a fennec fox named CYM, which stands for “close your mouth,” to encourage people to listen to others. The fennec attracted him in his design process because of its large ears, symbolizing listening.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker proclaimed Sept. 17 as Close Your Mouth and Listen Day. The day, created by Alexander, will happen the third Monday of September, and is to encourage residents to share the mission of Alexander and his CYM character.


Charlotte Rene Woods

I was Charlottesville Tomorrow’s government reporter from 2019 to 2022. Thanks for letting me be your resident nerd on how local and state governments serve us. Keep up with me @charlottewords on Twitter. If you haven’t yet, consider subscribing to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s FREE newsletter to get updates from the newsroom on the things you want to know.