"If you aren't happy with something or see that something is not right, speak up!"
When high school senior, Merrit Jones, realized how poor the education system was in her state of South Carolina, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She founded a nonprofit called Student Space to encourage students to STAND UP for their education and use their voice to make a difference.
We LOVE your ambition, Merrit. There's no doubt about it, YOU are changing the world!
Every Ella: Tell us about yourself.
Merrit Jones: I'm a high school senior from South Carolina. I am extremely passionate about education and the power of student voice. You can find me in business casual at my internship at the statehouse or heading to yoga and there's not much in between.
You founded a nonprofit called Student Space. Can you tell us about it?
Student Space is an entirely student-led nonprofit organization that world to amplify student voice in decision-making. Our goal is to empower students to take ownership of their own education. Our work spans from the classroom to the state house.
Was it difficult to start? What was the process like?
The most difficult part was deciding which route to go, but I ultimately settled on the nonprofit route. Now I'm working on building a strong team with young people form across South Carolina.
Did you have any difficulty being taken seriously as a young woman starting a nonprofit?
Occasionally, but my age is often my biggest asset. Decision-makers are always caught off guard when a high school senior walks in the room and actually knows what they're talking about. They listen. I've been afforded many opportunities because I'm a high schooler doing this work. Back in January, I got to sit down 1 on 1 with the formed US Secretary of Education, and I doubt I would have had the chance if I was in my 50's. I'm only a high school senior for a few more months so I'm milking it for all I can.
What is the education system like in South Carolina and why is it referred to as the "corridor of shame"?
South Carolina education is all over the place. Our funding is not equitable. There are public schools like the one I attend, a $100 million school complete with recording studios and coffee shops, and then there are schools like the ones I went to and hosted roundtable discussions. There's no funding so many of these schools lack basic necessities like paper, A/C and working water fountains. About 10 years ago, a documentary was produced called "The Corridor of Shame" that took a look inside of these schools, an hour from mine. We watched it in class and I was heartbroken and that is when my advocacy work began.
Out of all of the work you have done, what are you most proud of?
The tour of schools I went back on in February is probably what I'm most proud of. I hosted 6 roundtable discussions at 6 different schools and the outcomes have been so cool. In one I was bale to experience the consciousness of students being raised as they realized the impact their voices could make in the community. It was the coolest experience.
You recently did a TEDx Talk! What was it about? Were you nervous?
I gave a TEDx talk called "I've Spent 13 Years in Prison" about how the current education system is essentially jail. It was a reflection on the Student Voice tour I went on and what I think should be done. I've spoken in front of crowds before but never for 12 minutes on something I had to have completely memorized. I was pretty nervous right before because I was the first speaker, but once on stage the audience is really rooting for you so it was great.
Why is using your voice and advocating for others so important to you?
I've always loved people and talking so when I became passionate about this work, I knew I had a powerful voice that could be used to change my community. There are so many people who aren't aware of the power of student voice. For years, I had never dared to question the status quo but now that I'm aware, I can't be quiet.
Name one woman who inspires you.
"You must do the things you think you cannot do." - Eleanor Roosevelt
There are a lot of wonderful women, but I am really inspired by women in politics, so I love Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a champion for women's rights and did not like the criticism get to her. I love that.
What do you do for fun?
Ha! I really do enjoy my work, but I try and pick a few days to be a normal high schooler. My friends and I like to go to the lake and do yoga together. We are constantly exploring and finding new picture spots.
What are your goals and ambitions for the future?
I have a lot of decisions to make right now as a senior. I'm waiting to hear back from colleges now, but i want to take a gap year. I am so invested in policy work in my state, I feel it would be counter productive to up a leave for four years. I really want to transform education and grow the student moment here in South Carolina and across the United States.
What advice would you give girls today?
YOU have such a powerful voice that can be used to change your situation. If you aren't happy with something or see that something is not right, speak up! There are constantly people, especially those your own age, that will doubt your ability to make an impact, but I can promise that you can make change and that changing the world is possible.