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NEW YORK - The American Civil Liberties Union today announced the winners of its 2008 Youth Activist Scholarship contest. Fifteen high school seniors from across the country will each receive a $5,000 college scholarship in recognition of their outstanding work to protect civil liberties, especially for young people.
Since 2000, the ACLU has awarded scholarships annually to honor the efforts of graduating seniors who have demonstrated a strong commitment to civil liberties and civil rights through student activism.
"It's heartening to know that in a time when our civil liberties are under constant attack, so many young people across the nation are stepping up to defend their rights as students and as Americans," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "We are pleased to award the ACLU Youth Scholarship to recognize the courage of these young men and women who are future leaders in the fight for civil liberties."
Below are highlights of the accomplishments of this year's winners, and quotes from their personal essays. Full profiles and photos are available by clicking on the winners' names.
Brian Carrell stood up against prejudice in his small, conservative hometown of Roscoe, IL by starting his high school's first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). School administrators at Brian's high school sent the GSA proposal to the district's school board, where anti-gay groups packed the room at every board and subcommittee meeting. Brian's own mother spoke at the board meetings in opposition of the GSA. Despite these obstacles, he started an aggressive Internet campaign to rally GSA supporters and volunteered to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the school if the school board voted against the proposed GSA. Thanks in large part to Brian's efforts, the school board ultimately voted 5-2 in favor of the GSA. The ACLU of Illinois is proud to support a student who stepped forward to guarantee fairness in his school, despite being at risk of being shunned by his community, friends and family.
"I believe that it is paramount to a free and open democracy, that all voices are acknowledged regardless of age, race, creed, sexual orientation or social status… Now that I have seen what a group of students working together can accomplish, I am encouraged to stay active in the democratic processes of my community and my nation."
Cara Cerise of Salt Lake City, UT, has been active in supporting LGBT rights and social justice throughout her high school career. In addition to accepting leadership roles in her school's social justice club, Building One New Dream (BOND), and lobbying against dangerous anti-gay bills in Utah's state legislature, Cara also started the Utah chapter of Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE). COLAGE is a support group designed to "engage, connect, and empower people to make the world a better place for children of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender parents and families." The ACLU of Utah also recognized Cara in its local scholarship competition for her demonstrated leadership and initiative.
"I'm an activist because I know I can make a difference. As I finish high school, my activism will not stop. I see it as an ongoing process. It is my passion, my drive, my reason for living."
Jamaal Davis is a dedicated leader in the New York Civil Liberties Union's Teen Health Initiative. Since being chosen as the group's youngest Peer Educator at the age of 14, Jamaal has worked diligently to promote civil liberties. Jamaal has consistently conducted more outreach in his community and presented at more workshops than any other Peer Educator in the program - giving dozens of presentations across New York City about critical reproductive health services. Additionally, he started a workshop with his church youth group to inform his peers about access to health care like HIV/STI testing; participated in a demonstration against the Patriot Act, "A Funeral for the Bill of Rights"; and has marched for immigrants' rights. Jamaal recently moved from his native New York to Durham, NC where he worked at a pharmacy to ensure that those who used the pharmacy knew their rights, particularly about obtaining birth control.
"The United States needs people to stand up for everyone's rights. I feel fortunate to have found the ACLU… The fight will be long and hard, but it is surely one that needs to be fought."
Evie Farnsworth was inspired by the suicide of her gay uncle to become engaged in LGBT issues in her Nashville, TN high school. She is a founding member of a student-led coalition to get the Metro Nashville School Board to expand the student non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity, expression, and appearance. Through a comprehensive public education campaign, the students have built up a coalition of Nashville's most respected child welfare and youth groups dedicated to showing how anti-gay and anti-transgender bullying affects all students. Evie and the rest of the Support Student Safety coalition hope that their efforts will be a model for other students who want to make positive change within their school districts. Evie is also active in her school's GSA, and helped to organize campus events like the Hume Fogg AIDS Walk, National Transgender Day of Remembrance, World AIDS Day and the National Day of Silence.
"I strongly believe that every person in this world is owed the right to embrace his or her individuality… While anger, sorrow and pain have their justifications, hatred has no righteous place among humanity. My deepest desire is that peace can be given to those who have been robbed of it by a misinformed and unkind society. I will fight for that peace with all the power I possess."
Justin Fletcher took a stand for free speech in the small town of Nitro, WV. After his school board responded to the complaints of a few parents by removing two books from the school curriculum, Justin organized and led a student protest against censorship and co-founded the Student Coalition against Censorship with students at a neighboring high school. Justin took the lead in student organization efforts, preparing talking points about censorship for the school board's consideration. Justin and his fellow students were persuasive enough to convince the school board to repeal the book ban.
"I set out to defend the rights of students and along with the help of my peers the ban has been repealed. I truly feel if not for our actions, these books would not be in our curriculum and the rights of students would be further eroded."
Chip Gibbons, a Millersville, MD native and intern with the ACLU of Maryland, is passionate about a wide range of civil liberties issues from the PATRIOT Act, to torture and abuse of human rights at Guantánamo Bay Prison, to ending the death penalty and the war on drugs. Chip stepped up his activism when a student group he belongs to, Students for Peace and Justice, tried to invite an Iraq war veteran to his school to talk about the realities of war. Shortly before the presentation was scheduled to take place the school canceled the speaking engagement. In response, Chip took the initiative to organize an off-campus event with the veteran, so his message could still reach students. Later, he confronted school officials when they decided that he and his student group could not distribute fliers informing their fellow students about military recruitment opt-out options. Thanks to his efforts and those of Students for Peace and Justice, school officials relented and allowed them to inform students about military recruitment. Chip has continued to be a civil liberties activist and organizer whose voice will not be silenced.
"Rights aren't something that exist on some pedestal or in some glass case at a museum; they are something that belongs to you. However first you must claim them."
Tonei Glavinic is an accomplished civil liberties activist in Anchorage, AK. He is the youth representative on the board of Identity, Inc., a non-profit organization that operates the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Anchorage. Tonei is also the Board President of the United Youth Courts of Alaska (UYCA), a program that diverts misdemeanor youth offenders to a peer-based community service program instead of the traditional juvenile justice system. He is a producer with the Alaska Teen Media Institute, and leverages this position to promote LGBT rights on weekly and monthly radio shows he produces for local college and public radio stations. Tonei is also president of his high school GSA and co-chair of the National Transgender Education Project Youth Review Board. His most passionate interest is working with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) where he currently serves on their National Advisory Council.
"… I want to spend the rest of my life working for equal civil and human rights for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity."
Rachelle Harrison hails from South Jordan, UT. While only in the sixth grade, she realized there was a problem with a school busing policy that prevented students at her school from having equal access to educational programs. She gathered data and petitioned the school board to provide transportation for students who would have otherwise been excluded. She continued working on this issue throughout middle school and high school. Her efforts led to the school adopting a more inclusive busing system. The ACLU of Utah also recognized Rachelle in their local scholarship competition.
"…I have strengthened my belief that it is important to defend the rights and meet the needs of all people. I have also learned that an individual or a group of individuals can make a real difference in the world."
Matthew LaClair, of Kearny, NJ, stood up for religious freedom and the separation of church and state in the face of ridicule and opposition. During his junior year in high school, Matthew had a history teacher who promoted creationism and other personal religious beliefs in the classroom. When Matthew confronted the teacher and asked the school officials to address this, he became the target of harassment and even a death threat from fellow students. Despite this opposition, Matthew worked with the ACLU of New Jersey to make sure that the First Amendment is respected and upheld at his high school. Matthew won the battle at his school, and thanks in large part to his advocacy the Student Education Assembly on Religious Freedom was created at his high school so that all members of the school community can better understand their rights and responsibilities.
"I hope that what I did encourages others to stand up for civil liberties. I now have a greater chance of making a bigger difference in the world…"
Doris Le has been a dedicated civil liberties activist throughout her high school career in Vallejo, CA. She has been a key leader of her high school ACLU Club for all four years, organizing presentations and workshops on youth rights, equality in education, military recruitment and many other civil liberties topics. Armed with an awareness of new educational equity laws from the Williams case (co-filed by the ACLU in 2000), Doris recently led students in waging a campaign for clean, safe and accessible bathrooms, a basic necessity that had been lacking in her school for years. Under Doris' leadership, the ACLU Club collected over 800 student signatures to support the bathroom campaign and galvanized 20 students to attend bi-monthly meetings with the school board to hold the school accountable to California law. Despite facing criticism from students and administrators, Doris and her fellow club members maintain that students deserve healthy and accessible facilities, which are vital to educational access and a humane learning environment.
"I know I will continue with activist work in the future because similar to my actions this year, I will not be able to stand by when I feel injustices are being committed."
Adam Lee utilized his passion for filmmaking to promote his other passion: defending civil liberties. As a volunteer with the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Adam not only completed the typical volunteer tasks like data entry, but also decided to use his creative talents to promote civil liberties. Adam created a short documentary about Malia Fontana, an ACLU client and high school student who was disciplined for wearing an American flag in her back pocket. Adam's compelling film reached students in 40 classrooms, successfully portraying the importance of free speech and students' rights. Adam also explored abuses in the criminal justice system with his documentary on Dale Akiki, a family friend whose basic human and civil rights were violated due in large part to his appearance. Adam's earliest film, on Japanese internment camps also addresses racial justice issues in a thoughtful and provocative way.
"I've come to realize that cinema, whether its fiction or a documentary, is one of the most influential mediums to tell stories, create awareness, and fight for civil liberties. I hope that through a career in filmmaking and continued participation with the ACLU, I can continue to defend our civil liberties."
Jonathan Lykes, of East Cleveland, OH, is committed to educational equality, voters' rights and increased opportunities for all students, regardless of their socio-economic background. Jonathan helped found a statewide action group that promotes student political activism, Youth Voices for Justice, and has traveled across Ohio educating young people and lawmakers alike on complex issues ranging from increasing the minimum wage, to educational equality. Additionally, Jonathan helped the ACLU of Ohio launch their Student Poll Worker Initiative. He worked with ACLU staff and the media to share his experience as a student poll worker, and to urge other students to join in. Jonathan's participation in the ACLU of Ohio's Student Poll Worker Press Conference was critical in convincing 88 county Board of Elections members to do a better job of getting young people involved in the election process. Jonathan is also a talented spoken word artist, whose many poems celebrate civil liberties, inspiring his peers to take a more critical look at their own rights.
"I always use the quote from Martin Luther King Jr., "Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere." I wanted to start my efforts with the future of this county - youth… I will continue to fight for justice for all people until I am dead. There is no greater calling to live for."
Angelina Momanyi passionately gives her time to educating her fellow students about their reproductive rights. As a peer educator in the Planned Parenthood of Minneapolis, MN, Angelina trains high school students to be reproductive health educators and provides them with opportunities to teach in area schools, churches, and community centers. Angelina is deeply devoted to expanding reproductive freedoms, volunteering 230 hours during the 2006-07 school year, leading the peer educator council to honor her as "Outstanding Advocate." Angelina participated in the 2007 Minnesota Youth Lobby Day to speak with state representatives about comprehensive sexual education in the public schools. The experience was so meaningful to her that she volunteered to organize the reproductive freedom efforts for the Youth Lobby Day in 2008. Angelina also participates in "Get Out the Vote" efforts at colleges in the Minneapolis area.
"Being a civil liberties activist isn't about the big events for me anymore. It's about the harder conversations I have with someone who doesn't share my views or having the courage to put friendships on the line for my beliefs in what is right."
Digna Santiago has become the face of activism for people living with HIV and AIDS in Puerto Rico. Upon moving to the town of Juana Diaz with her family, the local school board prevented her from enrolling in the public high school because she is HIV positive. The school superintendent suggested home schooling and a GED program instead. Rather than accepting this decision, Digna and her family mobilized the media and politicians to expose the discrimination against her. Her campaign was successful: she was featured on several television shows; was visited by prominent Puerto Rican politicians, including the governor; and the school board ultimately allowed her enrollment. Digna not only resolved her own personal dilemma, but she also brought the continuing prejudice against people living with HIV and AIDS into the public consciousness.
"All I wanted was to enjoy my last year in high school and then go to college to study engineering. I cried and cried because what had been my dreams were crushed down…I thought, 'Why am I treated like this? It isn't my fault that I am HIV positive.' All humans should be treated equally, like the laws say. I decided that things weren't going to end that way: I had to fight for my dreams."
Daniel Williams of Albuquerque, NM is a leader in educating the youth of New Mexico about their civil liberties. Two and a half years ago, Daniel founded the ACLU of New Mexico's Youth Advisory, Activism, & Advocacy Board, and he remains the president today. With this group, Daniel created several events to open civil liberties dialogues among his peers, including: the state's first Bill of Rights Mock Trial Competition, an annual series of screenings of civil liberties-themed films, and a free-press seminar for student journalists called, "Know Your Writes!" Daniel also reports on youth issues to the ACLU of New Mexico's Board of Directors, where his proposals have been voted on and enacted.
"I hope to see a future in which Americans think of themselves primarily as civil libertarians, not as Greens or Republicans or Independents or Democrats or anything else. I hope that people ask themselves, "Will this candidate stop the abuse of power? Will this ballot initiative keep Americans safe and free? What will this means for LGBT issues? For choice issues? For privacy? For habeas? Or for any of the other issues we face everyday as ACLU members?" Think of what a change that will mean for how we function as a nation."