InLight: Lifting Student Voices and Catalyzing Change

InLight: Lifting Student Voices and Catalyzing Change

InLight is a student-run platform that aims to expand the cultural lens of its readers by sharing diverse perspectives and experiences. Students share their stories, poems and artwork, detailing personal experiences, customs, politics, and social issues within their communities. InLight lifts diverse voices and examines injustices. Distant issues are made personal and readers can emphasize with realities and perspectives other than their own.

Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and length. All photos provided by InLight.

InLight Origins

InLight was created by two freshmen from Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC in 2015.

Twins Max and Sam Strickerberger initially founded the magazine to be a social justice publication.

Now six years later, close to 200 stories have been shared by InLight and the organization has partnerships with over 35 schools, sharing student voices from coast to coast across the United States.

InLight has positioned itself to be more than just a magazine. The nonprofit organization is “dedicated to advancing advocacy, inspiring diversity, and catalyzing change.”

We sat down with Ishaan Barrett, InLight’s current executive student director to discuss the collective power of storytelling and get a behind-the-scenes look at the organization.

Barrett started as an ambassador and founder of Maret School’s InLight Magazine and has served three years as the executive student director. During this time, Barrett has seen InLight grow into a new entity, already with a lasting impact.

“One thing that was super important when InLight was established was to create a space for the humanities to do work,” says Barrett. “That work was initially posited to be diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and eventually it became a larger mission in terms of advocacy and social justice.”

Making InLight Accessible

Today, InLight operates in a few ways. Students from around the country can contribute to the InLight website. Of the 35 partner schools, each has their own publication of InLight. Annually they come together to release a regional interschool edition.

“The interschool edition is where all the work they do is put into one anthology that is meant to sample the different themes and flavors that are happening in terms of social justice work around the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia).”

This year the interschool edition is completely online and Barrett believes this is a shift to a more sustainable and accessible model.

“We’re trying to make it more equitable for schools who don’t necessarily have the same operating budget to get access to InLight,” says Barrett. “Typically that means certain schools would have to absorb part of our printing costs in order to receive magazines and that cost barrier tends to be very prominent for public schools who don’t receive the same amount of funding as private schools. We don’t want to create that division within the DMV, so we’re just going for a fully online version, and hopefully in the process reducing our carbon dioxide footprint too.”

Growing InLight’s Network

Every partner school has an ambassador who launches InLight and creates the first versions of what that publication will look like at their school. The ambassador program has allowed the organization to grow substantially and has led to successful working relationships with each partner school.

Barrett explains that their leadership team stays in touch with the ambassadors regularly to ask how their version of InLight is going.

“[We ask] is there anything that we can do to help facilitate the process, to get you more acquainted with the type of lifting, the type of advocacy work that each school has to do,” says Barrett.

Ambassadors are then invited to a fellowship program which is an opportunity to get involved with the executive team. They also have the chance to attend annual workshop events to discuss goals for the year and how InLight will work towards those goals.

Student Voices 

The voices InLight highlights are the student’s own. They explore themes important to them and write from a personal perspective. The organization relies on a student’s initiative to share their stories, or “challenge by choice.”

Last spring’s interschool issue’s theme was Allyship and Activism. A contributed piece describes growing up Black and fighting for equality. Another student’s poem examines the connection between incarceration and inequality in the United States.

“We aren’t asking for students to write for their newspapers, to write objectively, or to write from a singular perspective. We’re trying to create this multifaceted approach to storytelling which is both really rewarding and incredibly difficult,” says Barrett.

When asked if there is a particular story that has really stuck with him, Barrett ponders the “very difficult question.” As curator and editor he’s read most of the work that InLight has published.

“For me, the most significant part of reading an article is also knowing the person behind it and why they’re writing what they’re writing,” says Barrett. “These are kids I’ve known for thirteen years who are writing these stories and when we publish them to the regional edition I see them on this platform…and that creates a new appreciation for their work. I’m not just reading this, and my peers aren’t just reading this, this is out there for the world to see.”

Highlighting one article, Barrett describes a piece by Tara Zia who is his debate partner and a peer he has known since second grade. Titled “The Lasting Legacy of Dissent” Zia writes about the night she learned of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing and “what that was like to grapple with the fundamental identity of the United States.”

Art by Vanessa Schor | Washington International School

Elevating Equity and Inclusion Work

As Executive Director, Barrett defines what InLight’s sustainable development goals look like and steers the executive team towards those goals. His main responsibilities include thinking about expansion, retention, and impact.

Barrett highlights the partnership with Maret School as a great example of successful expansion. Through the partnership, the school’s student voices have been elevated, “not just out of necessity, but out of a drive to make Maret better,” says Barrett.

“Back when I started [the publication], Maret was not looking at equity in the same way that it does now. Now we have a student equity council, an anti-racism advisory council, and a more substantive approach towards equity and inclusion work,” Barrett continues. “For me, that impact is something I want to see at other schools and witness in communities around the nation.”

The ambassador program has shaped how InLight retains partnerships and student contributors. The organization features exclusively high school student’s voices so they have seen many individuals come and go in the last six years.

“We want to make sure that influx stays in equilibrium where we’re recruiting more ambassadors to join our network, and also cultivating rich talent and innovative thinkers throughout the process,” says Barrett.

Navigating a Pandemic

Barrett joined the executive team at InLight in his 10th grade year, right as the pandemic hit. Schools closed, virtual learning started and he was figuring out how to run a nonprofit.

“While balancing the nuances of virtual learning I was also handed this nonprofit which was a huge task,” says Barrett. “There was a lot of riding on it and hundreds of people are connected to this that I don’t want to see fall off the radar.”

The experience was scary for him. He didn’t take the role lightly and wanted InLight to continue being great and pursue growth.

After civil unrest erupted around the nation surrounding the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, InLight called for students to share their experiences on the front lines and at home.

“I think the urgency behind resolving social inequity during COVID, and desire to better understand the pandemic’s effect on systems of privilege, is something that really gave me the drive to take this on as a way to not just explore, but to also talk about pandemic inequality and to do something about it.”

InLight ran a Voices of Black Lives Matter issue for three seasons, featuring students’ perspectives and experiences.

Photo By Maddi Stewart | Sidwell Friends School

A Student-Led Organization

The organization has mentors and an advisory council composed of adults who have experience with social justice and social entrepreneurship. Much of the council is college students or graduates who served on the executive team in the past, and they maintain a connection with InLight through the board. However, InLight remains completely student-run.

“At the end of the day, we are still students, and we’ve all got class in the morning and sports practices in the evenings. Simultaneously, we’re all just trying to figure out how to navigate this whole college thing,” says Barrett. “That is the biggest challenge I think we’ve faced this year, while also trying to stay adaptive during the pandemic.”

The youth-driven optimism of the organization has helped InLight define itself and become more than just a magazine. Barret believes this is their strength.

“I don’t think we could have had the same impact if we weren’t completely student-run,” he says. “We just wouldn’t be able to say the things that we’re able to say. Yes, we’re students, but we’re also very ambitious. Not all of us are confined by realism  and we imagine InLight over several years and what could be, rather than what is.”

At 18-years-old, Barrett is the oldest member and only adult on the team. The youngest team member is a freshman writer at a partner school. The team is “incredibly diverse,” with the majority of students being people of color.

“Not to sound too cliche, but students are the future and I think that we’re forward thinking in that regard,” says Barrett. “We expect the best and dream to do more.”

Art by Ella Majd |
Sidwell Friends School

Humble Beginnings and Amazing Growth 

Through the years the InLight team has grown considerably. When Barrett moved into the role on the executive team, founders Max and Sam were there to advise him.

“I started out as the only member of InLight, but now we are an eight person administrative body with the hopes of expanding our advisory council to add twelve more people to bring our total to fifteen,” he says.

Barrett stresses that the team effort is what has gotten them this far.

“We’ve grown considerably since I first got here and that is immensely valuable because now we have the ability to hear from other people,” he says. “This isn’t one person working on everything; that just doesn’t work. I rely heavily on our interns, fellows and my other directors to see the right path and to find a path forward, which is always a challenge in advocacy work.”

Since inception, the magazine has garnered an excellent reputation and received national awards from the American Scholastic Press Association, National Association of Independent Schools and the Princeton Prize in Race Relations.

The team also applied and received an Arts Forward Fund Grant from the Greater Washington Community Foundation in 2021. This will give them a $1,000 operating budget for the next year to fund a new fellowship program, outreach coordination, the ambassador program, and general operations.

Barrett had news on another new award too – “I heard recently that Maret’s publication was awarded a Crown Award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association which is one of the most distinguished awards for student-run journalism in the nation.”

The recognition InLight is receiving further exemplifies the impact the nonprofit has created.

Art by Ishaan Barrett | Maret

How to Make an Impact

Barrett’s advice to other students wanting to make an impact – be stubborn and don’t take no for an answer.

“Be stubborn with perspective. Be stubborn with other people,” he says. “Don’t take no for an answer, not because you don’t want to hear the word no, but because you refuse to give up, and because you refuse to say no yourself…it might seem small to you but you don’t know how big it could be unless you’re stubborn enough to try it.”

Photo by Emma Vaughan | Maret

Taking InLight into the Future

Barrett will be graduating high school and heading to college in 2022. He is currently preparing to hand off the role of executive student director. With the years of experience he has, Barrett will stay involved through the advisory council to help oversee how InLight is operated for the next several years. This is a cycle he hopes to continue going forward.

“So when the next student director comes in, she signs on to the advisory council and she can continue working with the next generation of students at InLight,” he says. “She’ll be able to cultivate a cycle of people to maintain a really intimate knowledge of what InLight stands for.”

Looking to the future, InLight will continue to find its footing nationally and one day expand internationally. Near term, Barrett is excited to see the fellowship program that started this year in full-swing. Through the program, students work on long-term projects that involve their community and InLight’s development programming.

“All of our fellows produce a project and by the end of the year that we publish on our website. From there, we use that as a springboard to inspire more people to look at our fellowship program as an opportunity to explore topics that they’re interested in,” says Barrett.

“One of our fellows is working on cultivating the first open-forum discussion in Chicago public schools about DEI and race relations as an institution, while in the process, cultivating cultural awareness, cultural competency, global citizenship, and skills that are critical to fostering conversations about diversity in a school community” he continues.

“We also have someone working locally in Rockville. She’s researching and reporting on systemic bias in our health care system during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it’s not a new topic, she’s examining it from the critical perspective of Black women. I think it’s going to be a really interesting fellowship project with the potential to shed light on the long-overlooked social inequities that must be addressed by our political system,” describes Barrett.

InLight is currently hiring and filling vacancies for the seniors that are graduating. The team will continue strengthening community partnerships, create new partnerships with schools, and foster long-term relationships with ambassadors. But most importantly, persevere in supporting their mission.

“Our legacy isn’t instilled within one person or a singular group of students,” says Barrett. “It’s a body of people; an entity. It’s something that will evolve and grow, incorporating new ideas and perspectives in the process. InLight holds so much in its future and I’m incredibly excited to be part of it.”

Learn more about InLight. Read more Rustic Spirit stories