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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today announced the winners of its 2009 Youth Activist Scholarship contest. Sixteen high school seniors from across the country will each receive a $12,500 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. Last year, the ACLU greatly increased the scholarship amount and expanded the program to include a youth activist institute, bringing the winners together to further their civil liberties work.
"These students stepped up to defend their rights as students and as Americans during a time when civil liberties were under constant attack," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "We know they will remain vigilant even as America begins to repair the damage that has been done. We are so pleased to be able to offer this scholarship to America's next generation of civil liberties leaders."
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.
As a high school junior, Elizabeth created and taught a class to seventh grade boys and girls at her former middle school aimed at lowering the risk that they would enter into the "school-to-prison" pipeline. She has also played a leadership role in youth summits, the Minority Student Achievement Network, the Cambridge Peace and Justice Corps, Students Teaching and Advocating Respect and other activities designed to address injustice, racism, violence, the school to prison pipeline and other issues facing youth in her community.
"I couldn't pretend that my age could be a real deterrent from making a dent in the pipeline that was shamelessly transporting my peers from school to prison. I knew I had to start in my time, for my generation."
As the lead defense attorney for the Juneau Youth Court, Anne is dedicated to helping young people between the ages of 12 and 17 facing legal trouble gain a second chance. In this position she discovered certain trends of biased sentencing for Alaska Native youth, whose voices often go unheard in the community, and worked for the next three years to reduce that inequality. Anne also acts as a resource to the community for issues concerning youth, including serving on a panel at a town hall meeting about underage drinking, on the Truancy and Dropout Coalition and on the Alaska State Activities Association Board of Directors.
"Through service to juvenile offenders, I became a civil liberties activist seeking equal justice for Alaska Native students. I realized that there was an unintended bias in our sentencing, and that action needed to be taken to restore equality within the Juneau Youth Court."
Sangeeta Bhola has grown into a leader of human rights advocacy at her school as an active member and leader in her school's Gay-Straight Alliance. She has overcome fears of ridicule from her peers in order to speak out about equality for LGBT students. Sangeeta is now the president of the GSA and has successfully lobbied her school to adopt the Safe Schools Initiative and begun work on a plan to curb hate speech.
"Our country has based itself on diversity and individuality, but many individuals are not allowed to express who they truly are. I would like to hope that our government realizes that by not protecting the LGBT community, they are greatly harming students as well as adults."
San Francisco, CA
Constance Castillo became an active member of her local ACLU Youth Activist Committee as a high school freshman. Over the last four years, she has visited state prisons, written op-eds, facilitated workshops on gender in the media and police brutality, and helped organize a social justice youth conference attended by youth from all over northern California. During that time, Constance has also created spoken word performances, film and art installations to speak to the issues that are important to her, and co-founded a club, S.P.E.A.K., where students address issues such as media influence and equity in education.
"Through spoken word poetry, I was able to share with urgency the many injustices I cared about with a large audience of youth that cared about what I had to say."
As a sophomore, Alex Fried was surprised to find recruiters from the National Guard setting up obstacle courses in his high school gym. After doing some research, Alex concluded that the military sometimes uses misleading information and false promises to recruit young people, so he decided to launch a campaign to make sure students have access to the information they need to make informed decisions about what to do after graduation. What began as a one-person effort to educate students on their right to "opt out" of sharing their personal information with recruiters and to offer information on alternative programs turned into the launch of a local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Now boasting over 80 members from local high schools and the University of New Hampshire, the group works to counter excessive military recruitment in the schools and to protect student rights.
"I believe that a civil liberties activist must not only make their own voice heard, but must organize others as well. I saw the need for an organization that cared about students' rights as much as I did, and for a sustainable group that could continue after I graduate."
Ponce de Leon, FL
When school officials at her school banned all rainbow-themed clothing and began punishing students for writing "gay pride" on their arms and notebooks, Heather Gilman filed a lawsuit to protect students' First Amendment rights. The lawsuit was an act of extreme bravery, since Heather faced intimidation and ridicule from her principal and others. Heather eventually won her case, reaffirming the right of students to express their support for their gay and lesbian peers.
A video about Heather's case is available online at: www.aclu.org/lgbt/youth/38778res20090224.html
"I did not fully realize how much this meant to me and others until Judge Smoak made his decision. I looked around the courtroom and saw tears in the eyes of most of the people there. I had seen it as just doing what was right."
After enduring personal ridicule and learning of acts of violence against her fellow students, Dora James helped to start a Gay-Straight Alliance in her rural Kentucky community. Facing threats and protests, Dora met with the superintendent and local ministers to ensure that the GSA could continue to operate so that other students could feel safe at school.
"I felt something had to happen, and that it was up to me to make it happen. I could make a difference. I felt that students who didn't get support at home should be able to feel safe at school."
After reading about an ACLU client who was prevented from boarding a flight until he agreed to cover up his shirt that read "We Will Not Be Silent" in English and Arabic, Rachel Kaplan decided to take action. She started by distributing shirts with the same message to a large group of students at her school, which drew attention to the issue and got the whole school talking. After that, Rachel became the student advisor to the ACLU of Alaska's Board of Directors, helping to plan a student leadership conference and travelling to the nationwide ACLU membership conference where she lobbied Alaska's lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Rachel continues to use the skills she learned working with the ACLU to be a leader in the grassroots civil liberties movement in her school, community and state.
"Civil liberties activists have a constructive purpose driving their actions. They are a type of artist, carefully selecting their form of protest to convey their message and convince their audience of its importance."
As the president of her school's Gay-Straight Alliance and a board member of the district Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Hannah Kapp-Klote has long been devoted to promoting the rights of LGBTQ youth. As a high school junior, she discovered a new medium for her activism when she became a co-producer and host of the Tenth Voice, youth radio program focusing on LGBTQ issues. Hannah went to work expanding the content and reach of the show, which has become crucial to promoting the civil liberties of LGBTQ youth in her community. Hannah is also dedicated to promoting religious freedom, and founded a group devoted to combating discrimination against atheists and agnostics through community service and activism.
"If our nation is to protect individual freedoms, we need discussion everywhere, from the floor of Congress to the smallest classroom."
Miles Lifson has been an activist since, as a seventh grader, he started an organization dedicated to protecting student rights. Later, as president of the ACLU club which he helped start at his high school, Miles has worked with the principal to reform the school's policy on student privacy and searches and helped create a booklet and Web site detailing students' rights. On his own, Miles embarked on a summer of activism training by volunteering at the ACLU membership conference and attending trainings in grassroots organizing and non-violent action. Miles is now training younger students to continue the work of the ACLU club after he graduates.
"Being a civil liberties activist doesn't just mean standing up for rights, but constantly affirming their value. The most fundamental rights have no meaning if they are not exercised."
Ashley Moffat organized a Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school in Nebraska. Despite the success and obvious need for the group from the very first crowded meeting, school officials refused to recognize the GSA as a legitimate student group – denying it the benefits other clubs receive, like a mention in the yearbook and coverage in the school newspaper. With the help of the ACLU, Ashley has fought to ensure that the group gets the recognition and protection it deserves.
"No matter what I have to do, who I have to fight, or how long it takes me to fight it, I know I will not stop fighting until I, my friends, my family have all the same rights as everyone else."
Whether it's organizing a demonstration to promote reproductive freedom, writing a letter to the editor in favor of a local anti-discrimination ordinance, or fighting to get a political candidate he didn't support on his school's mock election ballot, Daniel Mootz has always fought for civil liberties. Daniel has also received a national writing award for a piece arguing against the honoring of only certain religions with school-recognized holidays, and was a finalist in The Nation's student writing contest for a piece on military recruitment in the schools.
"Civil liberties know no party lines, follow no party dogma. Civil liberties are rooted in the belief of doing what is right to protect freedom, not to promote a political cause."
University Place, WA
Colin Moyer became concerned for his First Amendment rights when his tenth grade biology teacher began teaching the theory of intelligent design during a unit on evolution. After doing some research, Colin learned of the Kitzmiller case in Dover, Pennsylvania, where the teaching of intelligent design in science class was deemed unconstitutional. Colin contacted the ACLU and the National Center for Science Education, and together they came up with a plan to work with the school administration to stop the teacher from teaching intelligent design. It worked – the issue was quickly resolved and the material is no longer being taught at Colin's school. Colin has also done considerable work to promote free speech by starting an underground newspaper and educating student journalists on their rights regarding censorship.
"For me, being an activist means standing up for people's rights and exposing abuses of power. It is not about a personal agenda or making a scene; it is about defending civil liberties and getting the job done."
Steven Ross's interest in activism was sparked when he worked with the ACLU of Indiana to successfully challenge his town's unconstitutional curfew ordinance. Recognizing the many threats to the civil liberties of young people, Steven went on to found the Zionsville Students' Rights Union in order to protect students' rights and protect youth rights outside of school. Under his leadership, the group has grown to more than 450 members, become affiliated with the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA), and worked to reform various school policies. Steven is also supervising the establishment of more NYRA chapters throughout Indiana. The group is currently working to promote the rights of LGBT students and to protect religious freedom in the schools.
"The greatest problem, I believe, was that students felt they had no voice to challenge the issues that unduly threatened their civil liberties. I suggested to my fellow students that we form an independent student group to become that voice."
Despite attempts by school officials to stop her, Grace Sun fought to form the Bellaire Young Democrats club. And to ensure that all students at her school had a platform to express themselves, she also helped a group of friends form the Bellaire Young Republican club. From there, she launched the "Under 21 Campaign," an effort to increase political involvement among young citizens in her county, and organized registration drives and "get out the vote" efforts among young voters. Grace's belief in the importance of giving youth a voice in their community doesn't stop there – she has also served on the Houston Mayor's Youth Council and stands up for First Amendment rights as a student journalist.
"Through my experiences, I've learned that we have to be willing to stand up and fight for what we believe in. Perhaps equally important, I've learned that nothing happens unless we make it happen."
Natalia Thompson is dedicated to helping young women take action on the issues that matter to them most. At 15, she founded Speak Out, Sister!, a city-wide organization to get teen girls involved in the decisions that effect them, like policies on sexual harassment and access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare. To help them take a stand, Natalia organized a forum for high school girls to develop the skills they need to get involved, and the forum evolved into a series of workshops emphasizing local social justice issues, women's history and grassroots organizing. Natalia has also been hard at work organizing a girl-written Platform for Action on civil liberties issues affecting young women in her community, which will provide comprehensive recommendations on six main issues to policymakers.
"I realized most local initiatives and policies were developed by adults – with little input from the young women directly impacted by their decisions."
A full list of the winners is available online at: www.aclu.org/students/38938res20090305.html