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The 17-Year-Old Student Working to Desegregate New York City Schools

As a high schooler, Hebh Jamal helped organize a mass student walkout protesting Trump's Muslim Ban.
Photo by Bryan R. Smith

You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.

Hebh Jamal is a Palestinian-American Muslim activist and current college freshman at City University of New York.

Earlier this year, while Jamal was still in high school, the 17-year-old established herself as a leader in the fight against President Donald Trump's administration by organizing a New York City high school walkout. She's also a leader of Integrate New York City, a student-run organization focusing on school segregation, and works as a youth policy fellow at New York Appleseed, a nonprofit fighting for equal access and resources in New York City schools.


Broadly spoke with Jamal to learn about her work de-segregating schools and what she's looking to do in the coming year.

BROADLY: You’ve done so many incredible things in the past year, what are you most proud of?

HEBH JAMAL: The work of mine that has progressed the most actually focuses on school segregation. I’m part of a student-led organization called Integrate New York City. We work on getting rid of school segregation in New York, which has the most segregated schools in the country. That’s often linked to the school to prison pipeline, not having a solid education for minority youth, and there’s great inequities when it comes to resource allocation, funding, and quality teachers.

I’m also a youth policy fellow at New York Appleseed, and we focus on getting a solid education for all the students of New York City. One way we do that is advocate to desegregate and actually integrate our schools. While New York City has an extremely diverse student population, that’s not represented in our schools as we have the largest majority minority schools in the country. That’s because honestly the racism and classism in admissions that this city has adopted, in addition to the residential segregation and gentrification of the city.

Integrate New York City is student-run, is that important to you?
A year and a half ago, I joined the organization Integrate New York City and it was basically nothing. Putting all of the Trump things aside, this has been a continuous issue for over 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education deemed school segregation illegal. The North, specifically New York City, has never desegregated schools or integrated schools, leading to de facto segregation.


We advocate for policies that the students actually create. We believe that because we are the ones that are being affected by this, we should be the ones being heard. New York City has one of the most competitive high school admissions processes. Just by looking at that, it’s next to impossible for students from the Bronx, from Harlem, to get into one of those "better schools." The creation of a dichotomy, of a better or a worse school, is very painful and traumatic for students as it implies that if you have money or are white, you are qualified to go to a good school that is filled with resources. But if you’re black or Latino, you’re criminalized at school, you don’t have the resources.

Last year, I had an idea of creating a diversity council for every single district in New York City, having politicians, advocates, students, teachers go and really talk about the issues. We need organizing, we need a method of communication to speak to each other.

Have you seen student-based initiatives gain traction?

Our last council meeting was actually at City Hall and we had over 70 students present. Before we pushed for this, there was really no conversation about school integration at all. We really were the charge for this work. We testified at a diversity council and then the Mayor of New York City put out the diversity plan for New York City schools which literally includes some of the issues that we advocated for. I’m also on the advisory council for the school integration plan. Before students really pushed for this issue, segregation was really not an issue in New York City politics.


I covered your high school walkout at Foley Square this February. Was it important for you to see that other young people are becoming politically active?
Foley Square wasn’t the first protest I’ve organized but it was one of the first massive organizations with people of that age. I think that was very inspiring for me. It’s hard to take a look at everything that’s happening in this country and to decide what do you focus on. What do you put all your efforts on?

I’m a Palestinian-American and Donald Trump just announced that he’s making Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Things like that really endanger people in my community. After that announcement, I helped organize a protest that had over 3,000 people in Times Square and something massive like that shows how my work has evolved from fully focusing on Trump and trying to hone in on specific issues, specific acts.

There are always students that are willing to do the work. From the organizations I’m involved with, I’m really seeing voices of students. Post-Foley square, I definitely got more cynical but I also got more hopeful too, It’s weird that those two would be put together but I got more hopeful in the sense that change constantly happens. You need to alter that change to make it the best for society. However, I did get more cynical because I realized how many legitimate problems there are in society.

I learned about the Foley Square walkout on Facebook. Does the repeal of Net Neutrality threaten activism in this country?
I was watching the vote on Net Neutrality as it was happening. I was trying to understand why anybody would want to repeal Net Neutrality. It is a method of communication and organization.

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Revolutions actually happen from Facebook and Twitter. Look at Black Lives Matter, that all happened from Facebook and Twitter. Having a vote that is in favor of the telecom companies is going to be really harmful to the idea of protesting in this society, even the notion of organizing in this country. Access to information, news, is being taken away from people who are not able to afford it.

Are you looking forward to a new year?
I’m looking forward to the New Year; 2017 has been such a painful year in terms of being an activist. It’s been a very reactionary year when it comes to the Muslim ban, immigration, the list goes on and on. But I’m excited and hopeful to see what types of organizing happens in the future. I’m excited to see what kind of people pick up the fight and come join.