SOAR is the Right Word for these Students

The following column originally appeared in the Morrison County Record and several other APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during June, 2023.


It’s the time of year where adults wisely celebrate significant student achievement via graduation and artistic, academic and athletic competitions.

Today I’d like to honor a different form of student effort — that of the SOAR students at St. Louis Park High School. They’re having a local impact and are eager to talk with other students around the state.

For several years, this student-led group has discussed how they can promote collaboration among people of different races and challenge racism. They call themselves SOAR, which stands for Students Organized for Anti-Racism.

The hourlong conversation they moderated on May 25 attracted an array of students representing different backgrounds, colors and races. They encouraged frank, honest comments as they discussed their reactions to George Floyd’s murder, which happened exactly three years before this conversation.

SOAR Student Leaders on Stage and a small part of the audience

A key feature of the May 25 conversation was students asking each other questions and listening respectfully to the answers.

For example, one question asked what students’ responses were to the death of George Floyd. Among the responses: “I was furious,” “I was afraid,” “I marched in protest” and “I decided to get more involved in politics.”

That last point — about politics — was augmented by comments from Jake Spano, current mayor of St. Louis Park. Over the years, I’ve watched many conversations involving politicians and students. In every case, the politician was on the stage, in the front or, in some other way, the focus. Not this time.

Spano sat with students. At one point, he described efforts in St. Louis Park to promote racial equity that began 12 years ago. He gave a few examples, including promoting and achieving much more diversity on the city council, boards, and commissions.

Spano also explained that after 12 years on the City Council, of which eight were as mayor, he’s decided not to run again. As he told the students and me, in a separate interview, “Sometimes it’s time for people who look like me to step aside so others have opportunities to lead their communities.” His announcement can be found here.

Spano encouraged the students to participate in local boards and committees — all of which, except the Planning Commission, are open to high school students.

Several students responded positively to Spano’s comments. Jaiden, 16, said he has been working in political campaigns and hopes to run for some office in the future. Others agreed that they had become more involved in politics — or in some cases in protests.

Tina explained that she had attended a protest march and was frustrated by what was reported. “I saw almost every person walking peacefully and respectfully,” she recalled. She continued: “But that’s not what I saw on TV. The TV didn’t focus on peaceful marchers.”

Other students reported frustration with politics. SOAR leaders made clear that they had no intention of getting everyone to agree. As Sarah explained, “We brought people together to discuss these issues and keep them alive.”

SOAR has met for several years and is continuing. Several student leaders told me that they’d like to talk with students from other schools. More information about SOAR is available here.

Elizabeth Shockman, a Minnesota Public Radio reporter, attended the meeting, and shared some students’ comments. Her story is here.

Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens, SOAR’s advisor and 2006 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, told me that she’s “grateful and hopeful about the way Black, Brown and White students have come together.” She was “impressed by how wise and knowledgeable young people are. For them, it’s gone from their heads to their hearts.”

Dr. LeeAnn Stephens

(from a video in which she encourages students to consider becoming teachers)

SOAR students represent some of the best of their generation. I hope other students, educators and political leaders will reach out to, talk with and work with them. SOAR students, and others like them, have made it through the pandemic and civil unrest. They’ve chosen informed activism, not passive cynicism.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: