Written in collaboration with high school student leader Jordyn Masey Baker

Student leadership programs share a common goal of helping students develop as innovators, creators and, of course, leaders. However, some of the students most in need of guidance in reaching their potential are underrepresented in student leadership programs. Among these are minority groups such as socioeconomically disadvantaged students, special needs students, students of color, and female students. In order to have a truly representative student group, then, it is necessary for advisers and students to mindfully enact practices and policies that ensure all students are represented in student council or other student programs, and that all students, regardless of their ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender, or ability level, are able to access the leadership training and experiences gained in these student programs.

Structure and Organization—The Adviser’s Role

Minority students are still students, and are still affected by the same positives and negatives as all students in the school. They still want to be included, involved, and a part of fun experiences. So, why do some students seek out roles like membership in the student council, while others shun it?

Membership policies are one area that may adversely affect students who are part of a minority population. Many—even most—student councils require an election to become part of the organization. Still, others may require (as a prerequisite to an election, or as a requirement for membership in good standing) a signed petition, a certain number of service hours in the community, or some similar conditions. These policies are not intended to be punitive. There are a number of excellent reasons that they may be part of a council’s process, such as to control the number of involved students, to more closely mimic real-world government procedure, or to ensure that members are vested in student council and committed to being strong members.

However, those requirements may be proportionally harder or more daunting for students who are members of minority groups. A special needs student may not have enough students in their classes to meet petition requirements, and may have limited interaction with the rest of the student body. A student who is economically disadvantaged may have difficulty meeting out-of-school service requirements because of a lack of transportation or an economic need for an after-school job. Students who feel underrepresented in the school already may shy away from the idea of an election that they feel certain they just can’t win. These students then decline to even try to become part of student council at all, in part because these policies encourage self-selection within the student body between those who believe that they are student council material, and those made to feel that they are not.

Any student leadership adviser would be horrified by the thought that he or she is structuring a program in such a way as to discourage kids from participation. I know I was when I thought about why my very white, very honors-student-centric, relatively well-off group of students did not more closely mirror the realities of our student body. It occurred to me that perhaps the policies that I had enacted may be part of the reason why my student council was not more diverse. These policies had been part of my own leadership experience as a student, and I never questioned them as an adviser. However, in consultation with student council members, they determined that these and other policies were affecting students’ likelihood of joining the organization.

We decided to do away with the membership requirements (application, petition, election) that we had always had and went with an open membership policy. Students fill out a personal information inventory—this includes long-answer responses to prompts on topics such as their leadership experience, what they will bring to student council, and what they personally hope to get out of student council—and that alone qualifies them as members. The first year that we enacted this policy we actually saw a slight decline in membership. Some students who would have run for membership chose not to without the cachet of “winning” a place. Students who would have declined to be part of an election out of fear of losing were still suspicious of this new process, and still felt that there was a student council “type,” and they were not it. Gradually though, with the support of the faculty who gently encouraged students to give it a try, our numbers rose again. Our council is now a far more diverse group, and we are stronger because of the range of different perspectives that are represented within it.

Connecting with students’ interests, or with other clubs or classes that support those interests, also helps to draw students into your organization. Our mission is to support student involvement and make every student feel that he or she is an important part of our council. Therefore, we see it as our responsibility to support other student activities, particularly those that are smaller and have fewer resources, as they are often the groups that reach students who are part of minority groups, or who feel in some way underrepresented at the school.

For example, my student council identifies groups that may need support, or who have asked outright for help. The library staff wanted to host an after-school field trip to see a young adult novel made into a movie, but we found out that the cost was preventing some students from participating. Therefore, student council co-sponsored the activity, absorbing part of the cost for some students and the full price for some. Some clubs were struggling with very small memberships, so, under the direction of our administrator who oversees student activities, we helped run an activities fair to allow different clubs to showcase what they offer, talk one-on-one with students who might be interested in joining, and help encourage membership in all student activities. By sharing our name and resources with other groups, we are supporting all students’ involvement in school activities, even if that involvement is not directly as student council members.

Sometimes the goal of including all students requires a restructuring of activities, as well as a change in the structure of the organization. We received feedback that many of our students felt that pep rallies were only for certain students in the school, and the rest of the student body was just there to watch those students be showcased. This feedback was hard to hear, but it was important as it showed that our pep rallies—one of our major school spirit drives—were actually working against our mission of making every student feel that they are an important part of the school community. As a result, at our last pep rally we replaced some traditional activities with a Spirit Parade, in which clubs, teams, classes, and even groups of friends could participate. We modeled participation on the Rose Parade—groups could make a float, banners, signs, or whatever else they wanted to showcase their organization. They prepared a paragraph to be read aloud that described the group, its members, and its activities. Each description ended with what that group brought to being a Hawk (our school’s mascot). Hearing each groups’ pride in themselves and their school showcased again and again was extremely powerful. I learned things about different clubs, groups, and students I hadn’t known before, and there has been increased interest in many activities since the parade.

Reaching Out and Finding Common Ground—The Students’ Role

One of the most important tasks in encouraging minority students to become part of a student organization is to change the perception that your council itself is a minority group. Many students feel that only certain kinds of students can be part of these groups. Often, members of the student body define that type as smart, from a family that is financially well-off, and generally belonging to a majority ethnic and gender-identity group. Students who don’t fit that profile often feel that they don’t belong. It is the current members’ job to show them that they do belong. One way to do that is to showcase leaders who are of minority groups, who don’t fully fit the conception of the student leader “type,” or some combination of both. For example, Jordyn Massey Baker, a double minority, is the vice president of leadership within my student council. She acts as right-hand woman to myself (also a female) and the presidents (each representing a minority group). My student council is led by minorities, women, representatives of different ethnic groups, and LGBTQIA+ individuals.

But how can an organization that hasn’t attained that model manage that transition? Mentoring, or providing help, support, and leadership instruction in a one-to-one way, is one of the most important steps in encouraging leadership development among all students—particularly those who, as minority students, may be venturing into leadership roles for the first time. All officers in the council are responsible for identifying students who need extra support and acting as a mentor to those students, with guidance from the other officers and our adviser.

The first step in mentoring students is to identify their strengths and ask them to participate in something where their strength would benefit the group. During our “Getting to Know You” game at the first meeting of the year, a new member of the student council revealed that he liked to spend time on Twitter. Connecting with students via social media is a big part of our strategy for reaching out to the student body. We have our own hashtag we use for all student council events, but we also like to create additional hashtags for specific events. As this student’s officer mentor, Jordyn would give him the job of developing hashtags for a few upcoming events, and request that he keep his eye on Twitter for interesting games or contests that we could use.

Asking students for help, and giving them specific tasks to help with, provide an opportunity for them to prove what they can do. As he works on different projects, that student will see his hashtags being used by the whole student body, and he may even help build a whole new event that the student council would never have done without his input. This increases his feeling of belonging in the group, lifts his confidence, and encourages him to feel that he has something to offer. This is how Jordyn’s confidence and sense of belonging was developed through student council, and now, as leadership chair, she can do it for others.

The Not-So-Silent Majority

When reflecting on or actively seeking to engage minority groups, the true first step is to ask: “What is a minority group?” Too often, it is a group that society—or the school—sees as “minor” in terms of importance. Student council, though, believes that every student is a part of the society of the school and everyone is important within the group. The ultimate goal is to combine the minority groups and the majority groups and make an open and accepting group of young leaders—an organization that can connect with and represent everyone in the school. With that goal in mind—and a willingness to adjust practice, modify routines, and reach out to all students—an inclusive, representative student council will grow in any school.

Lori Cambareri Pruyne is an English teacher, instructional technology coordinator, and student council adviser at Corning-Painted Post Area High School in Painted Post, NY. 

Jordyn Masey Baker is vice president of leadership for the Corning-Painted Post Area High School student council.