ACLU Announces Winner of 2006 Youth Activist Scholarship

May 10, 2006 12:00 am

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High School Seniors Nationwide Honored for Their Civil Liberties Work

Shannon Baldon
Khalil Hassam
Maria Krauter
Elizabeth Lipshultz
Ashley Nichole McKay
Erik Meinhardt
Hannah Picasso-Hobin
Richard Ross
Kiran Savage-Sangwan

NEW YORK, NY – The American Civil Liberties Union today announced the winners of its Youth Activist Scholarship for 2006. Nine high school seniors from across the country will each receive a $4,000 college scholarship in recognition of their outstanding work to protect civil liberties, especially for young people.

The award was first given in 2000 to honor the efforts of graduating seniors who have demonstrated a strong commitment to civil liberties and civil rights through some form of student activism.

“Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, and young people are keenly aware of threats to our rights and freedoms,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “The ACLU Youth Activist Scholarship gives a small reward for the great courage and determination shown by these young men and women.”

The accomplishments of this year’s winner include fighting to protect student privacy in regards to the military recruitment provision of the No Child Left Behind Act; keeping a school system desegregated; and educating peers about sexual health.

Read below for highlights of their accomplishments. Click on the students’ names for full profiles and photos of all nine winners.

Shannon Baldon is graduating from Central High School in Louisville, Kentucky, a school with a predominantly African American student body and the alma mater of Muhammad Ali. Shannon was instrumental in starting a student ACLU chapter at her school and serves as its president. She and her fellow students have tackled a range of civil liberties issues, including the requirement to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, the confiscation of certain books and the right to form a Gay-Straight Alliance.

“I am in a position to give a voice to those who do not. My plan is become an assertive activist, but in a different way. I will help those who need help being heard and educate others on the rights and liberties that they have.”

Khalil Hassam is a senior at University Preparatory Academy in Seattle, Washington. He is the only Muslim student in his school. What prompted him into activism was a speech by a representative of a local university’s Muslim Student Union that degraded homosexual activity. Khalil protested, but the group would not change its position, so Khalil did what he thought right. He joined his school’s Gay/Straight Alliance and created two other organizations to fight discriminatory stereotypes and spread a message of tolerance.

“I am a Muslim, and I believe in social and civil rights for all, no matter race, sex, or sexual preference. When I transition to university next year, I know I can make an even stronger impact in this issue. I won’t be the only Muslim at my school, and together, we can be true ambassadors of Islam, representing the ideals of peace and unity with which Islam was created.”

Maria Krauter is editor-in-chief of East Bakersfield High School award-winning newspaper in Bakersfield, California, arguably one of the most conservative communities in that state. Maria had already won awards for her feature on banned books, but it was a series of articles presenting the views of gay students and their families that led her to truly understand and fight for freedom of the press. When publication was forbidden, the ACLU of Northern California and the ACLU National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of Maria and her fellow editors’ right to publish. Maria, who describes herself as a “golden girl, with a spotless academic record”, was vilified in the press and on local talk radio shows, but she never wavered.

“I’ve learned that being an activist is within every person’s reach. By living and practicing the principles and freedoms we believe in, we can all challenge injustice and make change.”

During her freshman year at Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey, Elizabeth Lipshultz discovered the military recruitment provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, an important clause that she found few of her peers or their parents knew about. Elizabeth and two other students founded a group called OYE OYE (Open Your Eyes, Open Your Eats) to educate students about their right to stop their names from being reported to military recruiters. As a result, the number of Montclair families who chose to opt out of the recruitment provision skyrocketed from 33% to 90%.

“Almost every student in the country was blind to the fact that their personal information was being sent to the military without their permission. I realized something had to be done. It took two school years of letter writing, administrative meetings, and board discussions, but in 2004, the policy was properly implemented.”

Ashley Nichole McKay is the daughter of civil rights activists. She is graduating with honors from Rosa Fort High School in Tunica, Mississippi, formerly one of the state’s most impoverished communities until the arrival of gambling casinos. Ashley is one of several students who led the fight to prevent an all white school from being built to accommodate the children of the casino workers, perpetuating segregation. As a result of their efforts, a new state of the art school was built and located in the heart of the black community.

“This fight helped to open my eyes to the racism that existed in our community and the State of Mississippi. I believe that in order to better the United States, we as young people must take an active role not only in voting but also in policymaking. I feel that it takes a whole community to raise and educate a child, even the child him/herself.”

Erik Meinhardt has led the fight at Berea High School in Berea, Ohio to ensure that his school is a safe haven for students of all sexual persuasions by founding the Students Equal Rights Coalition, of which he is president. In attempts to educate both students and administrators of the need to respect civil liberties for all, Erik has given presentations to sociology and psychology classes about human sexuality and homosexuality and is hosting a Day of Silence during Hate Crime Awareness Week.

“The struggle for equal rights has consumed my life and it now defines me. I have taken this struggle personally, and I do not think I can rest until I see universal justice. In Ohio, an anti-gay marriage amendment passed by way of referendum among the people in 2004. Reproductive rights recently faced a rollback in this state as well. I do not plan on sitting idly by and allowing these things to keep occurring.”

Beginning in her freshman year, when she formed a chapter of the ACLU at the Denver School of Arts in Denver, Colorado, Hannah Picasso-Hobin has served as a role model for student leaders. Hannah got the ACLU Youth Education Program off the ground by involving students from schools across the state. She helped plan the first annual Colorado Youth for Civil Liberties Expo, winning the Colorado ACLU “Trailblazer Award” for promoting awareness of the Bill of Rights — all this while becoming Denver School of the Arts Musician of the Year, President of the Denver Public Schools Student School Board, Mile High Scholar, and achieving membership in the National Honor Society all four years.

“We were all pleasantly surprised when one of the school’s self-proclaimed staunch conservatives became a member. By showing motivation and caring about the issues of civil liberties we can spread excitement to others and slowly but surely begin to combat the notion that my generation is one of apathy.”

Richard Ross is graduating from the Law and Government Community High School in Flushing, New York and plans to study business. Richard was nominated for his work as a Peer Educator in the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Teen Health Initiative, a program that works with over a thousand students to provide teens with accurate information about sexual health. This is a topic of great importance to Richard who is the son of an HIV positive woman. He helped plan a teen health conference, for which he created scripts and acted in a series of sex education videos about teens called “Somethin’ To Think About.”

“I became an activist because I believe that teens are not only more likely to grasp sexual health information when it comes from another teen, but they are also more likely to make positive choices if someone like them is modeling healthy behavior…Success for me means continuing to help young people follow their path and do the right thing.”

Kiran Savage-Sangwan exemplifies the ideal qualities of an activist: intense commitment to justice, boundless energy and passion, awareness and respect for others, and outstanding organizing skills. Now a senior at Davis Senior High School in Davis, California, Kiran has been involved in the ACLU of Northern California’s Youth Activist Committee, where she has taken leadership roles on key issues – military recruitment in school, educational equity, LGBT rights, reproductive rights and juvenile justice. Kiran is a passionate advocate of the importance of youth activism.

“Last year, there were a number of hate crimes in my school and community and it showed me that hate and prejudice are not removed from my home, not just a problem somewhere else, but something that we need to recognize and organize to prevent here. We are the ones being most affected, and we do have the power to truly change our school if we are willing to stand up and do something.”

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