2008 Youth Scholar - Adam Lee, Valhalla High School, El Cajon, CA

Adam Lee

"Adam loves life, he fights for what he believes in, he cares about his world, and his films express that admirably. Adam is the real deal – he isn't posing as an activist to get into college or to win a scholarship; he is a born organizer."


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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.

Adam's Scholarship Essay

It all started with a writing contest for our city's newspaper, The Union-Tribune. I was in 8th grade and I had to enter the " Letter to the Editor" contest as a class assignment. I wasn't quite sure what I was going to write it about. My teacher told me to find an article that I found interesting and write a letter expressing an opinion about it. I asked my mom for some advice on where to get this article. She handed me an ACLU newsletter and I found it fascinating. The article I chose from the newsletter discussed the discrimination being leveled at immigrants. The next day I handed in my paper as well as the article; my teacher looked at the article and kind of scratched her head, she said, "Where did you get this?" That's when I realized it was a little peculiar to have a liberal point of view in east county San Diego. Since then, I've discovered that there is merit in fighting for your values, especially politically.

After that experience, I took my nascent political identity and put it to use. We began studying the Constitution and I joined my school's Constitution. I volunteered for the unit that specialized in the First Amendment. I wasn't quite sure at the time what it was, but I knew it had to be important because it was the first of all the Amendments. I soon learned what the First and in turn the rest of the Amendments were and how they affected, protected, and defined the American civic identity. The Constitution really captured my interest and it came easy to learn about. Although it a little weird for a 12-year-old kid to be "into" the Constitution of the United States, I was okay with being thought weird.

I began following politics in the news and especially the 2004 elections. I remember on election night my mother and I were "glued to the tube" watching the polling results come in, seeing the states pop up, some red and fewer blue. It was disappointing to see the results of my first election not go as I had hoped. And the intervening years as a result of the election definitely had an impact on the way I viewed our government, and politics in general. When I was first getting interested in politics, it seemed many of our rights, and Constitutional principles were being eroded from beneath our feet. The past decade has made it easy to find logic in liberal views and to join the fight for civil liberties. It's fight that really needs to be fought these days.

In my sophomore year of high school I had to do a project for my AP World History class. We were supposed to create a power point on some international issue. Instead of a power point, I made a documentary about the Japanese internment during WWII. Creating the documentary seemed natural considering my political views, the fact that I'm part Japanese, and my dad was born in Japan. In fact, if my family had been in San Diego during WWII my grandmother, father, brother, and I would have been interned under Executive Order 9066. The ACLU has even been apart of this story; it represented the famous Fred Korematsu in his fight for civil liberties.

I began spending my free time volunteering at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties in the middle of my high school career. It was interesting to be involved with the organization that first really introduced me to politics. During my time with the ACLU I have participated in their first ever Mobilization Conference and recorded their board training on video, interviewed (on camera) a named high school plaintiff in an ACLU free speech lawsuit to be show-cased at "Constitution Day" around the county. I've also attended the San Diego Gay Pride Parade in hopes of marching with the ACLU. I've spent over a year now volunteering with the ACLU. I helped facilitate an association between the local ACLU affiliate and the San Diego Asian Film Festival. I plan on continuing this link by remaining involved in both of these organizations.

In the same vein as my documentary about Japanese internment, I recently finished a documentary with the San Diego Asian Film Foundation, which will premiere at the 9th annual San Diego Asian Film Festival. My film explores the criminal justice system abuses in the prosecution of Dale Akiki. The prosecution violated Akiki's basic civil and human rights and used the "ritual abuse" hysteria that was then sweeping the nation to persecute Akiki. I'm planning to distribute this film to other major film festivals to promote awareness of the problems of intolerance and disregard for basic human rights that we still face today.

The juxtaposition in my life of filmmaking, fighting for civil liberties, and Asian culture is definitely not a coincidence. My interests, if broken down to their lowest common denominators would be: filmmaking, civil liberties, and Asian culture. I'm hoping to pursue a career in filmmaking. I've come to realize that cinema, whether it is fiction or 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, I can continue to defend our civil liberties.

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