5 Highlights from our Student Presidential Leaders Forum

Leadership & Public Service | Clinton Presidential Center

The Clinton Center’s Student Forum convenes students, educators, and community leaders to have thoughtful discussions and constructive dialogue about issues that are important to the next generation of leaders.

“Leadership is something we have to do together. It has to be a social and communal and ongoing effort.”  -Chelsea Clinton

Our third annual Student Presidential Leaders Forum shined a light on disparities in education, mental health, and social justice that exist in communities across America. Students were able to hear from and speak with Dr. Chelsea Clinton; author, educator, and activist Michael Tyler; and mental health advocate and founder of Silence the Shame Shanti Das.

The Student Forum is the culmination of discussions and workshops that are part of the Clinton Center’s Student Presidential Leaders Series, which is designed to shape and inspire the next generation of leaders. Thanks to the Roy and Christine Sturgis Charitable Trust for their generous support of the series. 

Keep reading to see five moments that inspired us from this important and dynamic conversation in Little Rock.


1. chelsea clinton drew inspiration from coretta scott king WHEN DISCUSSING the future of SOCIAL JUSTICE.

CHELSEA CLINTON: Coretta Scott King who is an important America figure in her own right and too often is treated as if she was just an appendage to her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She was an important civil rights leader when they met, and she very much was an important civil rights leader while he was alive. And she was an important civil rights leader after he was murdered. And she repeatedly said in her life that one of things that she really always wanted people to understand is that progress has to be protected and defended in every generation. And I think too often we think that we fought that battle, we’re done. And the battle is never over because there are always people who want to not only protect the status quo but drive us backward. And that is what we cannot tolerate.


2. Michael Tyler spoke on the difference between tolerance and acceptance.

Author and activist Michael Tyler pointed out the importance of words and their meanings.

MICHAEL TYLER: Tolerance, again, is not a moral virtue is one thing I want you to understand. It is an issue of enduring a discomfort. So, when I go out in society and people still shut their eyes when they see me or stare at me with criminal intent, like I have criminal intent, or clutching their purses or pulling their children closer to them, they’re tolerating my presence but they’re not embracing my humanity. The greater word, and something that I want and I hope will be taught more in classrooms and at home, is acceptance. Acceptance is not a synonym for tolerance. Acceptance requires three things. Number one, it requires recognition when we walk down the street we don’t even look at each other, we look past each other, we look beyond each other, we look through each other, we look at our phones. If I’m not looking at you I don’t even see an individual that I need to entertain has value. So that’s the very first thing, we have to actually look at each other, recognize. The second thing to me is—in that recognition I acknowledge you, nod a head, smile, say hello, wave, and from that acknowledgment what comes is I’m affirming, that’s the last part of it, that your humanity and my humanity are the same. That’s a totally different policy than tolerance. It’s completely different. And so if we were to teach children to pursue and advocate and practice acceptance then inclusivity would begin to expand greatly.


3. shanti das charged the adults in the audience to care for the whole child—socially, emotionally, and physically.

Shanti Das, founder of Silence the Shame, pointed out that in order to care for the whole child, educators and leaders must understand what children experience outside of school.

SHANTI DAS: We’ve got to pour back into our children. We talk about being able to care for the whole child—how can you expect a child to come to school and learn? You already have limited resources, but if they’ve lost a loved one, or a parent has died by suicide, or a friend, or you’re up at 11 o’clock at night because you’re living in a neighborhood where you’re constantly hearing gunshots, right, or you’re having to deal with domestic violence. It is so many different variables and things that our kids and communities of color go through and experience—it’s no wonder why mental health is at an all-time high right now. So you add the pandemic on top of that and then you add the racial justice pandemic that happened for so many people and communities of color, it’s a lot for all of us to have to process right now. So I want us to think about the whole child and care from a social, emotional, well-being perspective; physical health… I just want us to make sure that we’re thinking about what the children have to deal with when they go home. And also how do we bring the families into it the conversation because you can’t uplift the children if we’re not looking at the family and the community overall.


4. Shanti Das and Chelsea Clinton discussed how student leaders can make an impact.

A student asked the panelists how they should go about taking action when students see disparities in communities, as well as how they should respond to criticism when trying to move forward.

SHANTI DAS: You have to be the change that you want to see, you’ve heard that said before, but it really is that simple. If there is a problem that you see whether it’s in education or around social justice, around mental health, start within your own small community, whether that’s your family or your friends. You know, unfortunately, some of our parents and grandparents don’t necessarily see eye to eye with us sometimes as it relates to issues around social justice, so start having those conversations at the dinner table. Get a group of like-minded students together. We’ve seen in our nation, historically, a lot of our incredible events or movements, whether it was the Civil Rights Movement, it starts with a few young students and young people. So be the change that you want to be and start right now taking action in your community.
CHELSEA CLINTON: And I would just build on that by saying I do think we are more likely to sustain our efforts to hopefully create a community, to enable us collectively to be leaders, when we are focused on something we care passionately about. Whether that is mental health or climate change or getting more books into more places for more kids to read, whatever the issue is that animates you that either inspires you or makes you really angry, that’s where I would hope you would start. And I think, too, look at, as you heard from Shanti with her thinking about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, look at examples of leadership in the past. And what has been effective and what has worked, whether it’s in Civil Rights or climate change—it doesn’t even have to be in the area that you care about or what you want to purpose and direct your time and energy, just what have successful models of organizing looked like because you shouldn’t always feel like you have to invent the wheel. So hopefully, thinking about what you care about, learning from what has worked, will just better position you to have the impact that you want to have.


5.Michael Tyler reflected on the challenges youth MAY EXPERIENCE following the covid-19 pandemic.

MICHAEL TYLER: Despite the fact that I didn’t grow up in a perfect America and that I didn’t grow up in an America that had much value for who I am as an individual, I did not have to grow up with the situations that many of you are growing up with right now. And I have concerns about what your futures will be and what the lasting legacy of this whole era—not just the pandemic era but the political era that you’ve grown up in. It’s my hope that as I look at you all, that you have your support groups within your communities, within your schools, within your families, but that you look to each other for that. Each and every one of you here is a resource for someone else because no one knows the situation more than you do. You’re actually living it. And your perspective and how you are living it is far different from somebody who is my age or far different from somebody who has been trusted to educate you. So, look at yourself as rich mines of information to resource that you can share with each other about coping, about overcoming, and about going forward from this period on. That’s the one thing I would really encourage all of you.