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Richard West and students

Empowering Teens to Create Change with Summer Course in Politics, Activism, and Leadership

In the Politics, Activism, and Leadership Institute (PAL), one of Emerson’s Pre-College summer programs, high school students discuss their ideas about important issues and current events—and how to turn those ideas into actions. We talked to lead instructor and Communication Studies faculty member Richard West about how he works with these young students to create meaningful change.


“…and these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through…” —David Bowie, “Changes”

This timeless quote has appeared in everything from the opening credits of angsty 80’s teen movie The Breakfast Club to describe the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL—who have recently made history by channeling their anger and grief about mass shootings into a movement to make gun regulation a national conversation. This kind of activism from young people is nothing new. For decades, youth around the globe have been fighting and advocating for social and political change, from the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War protests to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Now more than ever, the voice of younger generations are being heard worldwide.

Emerson’s Politics, Activism, and Leadership Institute is a two-week pre-college program that invites teens who, much like the Parkland students, are energized by politics, civic engagement, and social issues. The course aims to empower these teens to find their voices. Instructor Richard West, who is also former President of the National Communication Association, has worked tirelessly to increase the visibility of ignored voices around the U.S. with an emphasis on how an idea can turn into action. West describes the program as “honoring the passionate voice of the teenager who wishes to be an activist, a trailblazer, and an optimistic leader for change.” He and the PAL staff remain committed to helping diverse students work toward making a difference with others.

During the two-week program (July 22nd – August 4th), teens will work with experts to focus on global politics, grassroots organizing, political speechwriting, polling, leadership ethics, activist movements, and public speaking. Through workshops, field trips, and candid discussions, students will be introduced to a variety of important and legendary cultural issues and events. Each PAL participant will end the program by presenting a “stump” speech about a topic they are passionate about or an issue impacting their community.

West highlights that “PAL assists teens in crafting persuasive messages that serve to incite behavioral and emotional change.” Past PAL speeches have advocated for a cross-section of various needs—from building a skateboard park to changing municipality laws to establishing vegan options in schools. This summer, PAL students will leave Emerson with a newfound passion, engagement, and direction.