ACLU Announces 2002 Youth Activism College Scholarship Recipients

April 15, 2002 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union today announced the names of nine high school seniors selected to receive $4,000 college scholarships in recognition of their activist work in civil liberties.

“I am inspired and impressed by the courage and commitment of our scholarship winners,” said Nadine Strossen, President of the National ACLU. “It is a comfort to know that the next generation of civil libertarians is so promising.”

The ACLU’s Youth Activist Scholarship Award was created in 2000 to recognize the efforts of graduating high school seniors who have demonstrated a strong commitment to civil liberties. The award, which is given annually, was made possible by a generous grant from an anonymous donor.

Scholarship candidates are nominated by their local ACLU affiliates. Each of the ACLU’s 53 affiliates is allowed to nominate one student for the award; the nominations are then presented to the ACLU’s national scholarship selection board, which selects the year’s winners.

The nine winners were judged on the strength and depth of their contributions to civil liberties and the rights of young people, the likelihood of their continuing commitment in the future, and the obstacles they had to overcome in their activist work.

Many of this year’s recipients stood up for the rights of their peers by challenging school officials who violated their rights. Two of this year’s winners are currently embroiled in legal battles to get their high school to permit students to form an ACLU club on campus. This year’s other outspoken recipients have led anti-censorship and anti-war campaigns and educated their peers about their rights and the state of civil liberties today through school-wide programs and assemblies.

This year’s winners are:

    • Jessica Beckett, Poulsbo, WA, North Kitsap High School
    • Elizabeth Houston, Montclair, NJ, Montclair High School
    • Samantha Johnson, Boston, MA, Boston Latin School
    • Alan Kennedy-Shaffer, Mechanicsburg, PA, Mechanicsburg High School
    • Andy Sams, Alexandria, LA, Bolton High School
    • Chelsea Sharon, Portland, ME, Waynflete School
    • Wilson Sherwin, New York, NY, New York Lab School
    • Sara Van Oss, Houston, TX, Stratford High School
    • Lindsay Waggerman, Vallejo, CA Vallejo Senior High School

“How could I claim to honor truth, and let an issue like this die without a fight,” said Jessica Beckett, a senior at North Kitsap High School in Poulsbo, Washington, a small, conservative town dominated by the Navy. Jessica became involved in crusading against censorship when a group of parents lobbied to have selected material on the war in Vietnam deleted from the curriculum. Jessica and her father took the battle to the school board and lost, however her efforts helped educate other students on the dangers of censorship.

Elizabeth Houston, a senior at Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey, convinced her school to allow her to start an ACLU chapter, where she has led discussions on censorship, and partnered with the school’s NOW chapter to hold mock debates on local New Jersey elections.

“Knowing how pervasive and how important civil liberties are in everyone’s life, and seeing how fragile they are in the aftermath of September 11, I am hoping to be able to participate in this cause at college and beyond,” said Houston.

Samantha Johnson is a student at Boston Latin School in Massachusetts. She helped coordinate a student-run group that has challenged the inequities of the state’s standardized high school exam. Samantha has also helped organize two student conferences sponsored by the Bill of Rights Education Project and been one of the prime movers of the student group, Young Leaders of Color.

“As Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara said, ‘the true revolutionary is moved by a great feeling of love,'” said Johnson. “I became actively involved in my community and in social justice issues because I care for other people, and as cheesy as it may sound, I love.”

Alan Kennedy-Shaffer, a student at Mechanicsburg High School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, started a school chapter of the ACLU and has helped to raise students’ awareness of the complexities of such issues as racial profiling and the death penalty. Alan became involved in promoting the constitutional rights of students and convinced his school administration of his legal right to host activities for Banned Books Week.

“I defy convention, not because I wish to start trouble or am unpatriotic,” said Kennedy-Shaffer. “I have come to realize that rights do not protect themselves; we must be persistent in our determination to defend the civil liberties to which all of us are entitled.”

Andy Sams is a senior at Bolton High School in Alexandria, Louisiana, a traditionally conservative area in the central part of the state. Sams’ determination to stand up for students’ rights and lobby for social causes led to an uphill battle with his school administration. He was successful in overriding the school’s policy against wearing buttons and armbands with political messages, but his efforts to establish the state’s first ACLU Club on a high school campus were repeatedly thwarted by the school board. An ACLU sponsored lawsuit is now pending.

“Birthing the ACLU club has involved the most painful labor in my projects,” said Sams. “I have learned to choose my battles carefully to insure the least possible damage to others. The pain which the efforts have caused is worth it, for as my father has always said, growth and maturation hurt. I have grown a lot in the past year.”

Chelsea Sharon, a model student at Waynflete School in Portland, Maine, has worked with Amnesty International and participated in the state’s Moratorium on the Death Penalty crusade, which lobbied for repeal of the death penalty. Chelsea said her parents conducted mock courts at home since she was a child so that she would learn to practice morality the way other children practice the piano.

“I see nothing more important than attempting to change the world,” said Sharon. “I devote part of each day to the pursuit of this goal. Activism has become more than an extracurricular activity for me. It has become the most passionate component of my life.”

Wilson Sherwin, a senior at the New York Lab School in New York City, has for the past three years been a member of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Teen Health Initiative. As a member, she traveled throughout the city to educate her peers, researched and wrote papers on the treatment of adolescents in city hospitals and led a group that produced an educational video to educate minors about their health rights.

“The quest for a further understanding of justice and its complexities has been the propelling factor through much of my adolescence,” said Sherwin. “I feel grateful for having learned at such a young age that helping to make safe, healthy, educated communities is the best, fastest way to change the world and this is what I am dedicated to doing.”

Sara Van Oss, a student at Stratford High School in Houston, Texas, wanted to create a forum where students could learn about their civil rights. She submitted a charter to form an ACLU chapter on campus. Although her high school had many non-academic clubs, including one for Amnesty International, hers was rejected. With help from her mother and ACLU attorneys, Sara continued to press for her rights and has agreed to serve as a plaintiff in a forthcoming lawsuit.

“If the university I attend next fall lacks an ACLU club, I will repeat my attempts and create one there,” said Van Oss. “The experience has been a lesson in perseverance, determination, and standing behind your beliefs and goals.”

Lindsay Waggerman is president of her school’s ACLU club at Vallejo Senior High School in Vallejo, California. Following the September 11 tragedy she guided her club to hold campus-wide forums on the civil liberties issues that arise during a national crisis. She was also active in an ACLU sponsored field investigation of the political, social and economic forces driving the sex worker industry.

“I went on the trip simply to educate myself on the sex worker industry so that I would be more politically aware. I never expected to find an important part of my identity in the process,” said Waggerman. “I saw that there is no other choice but to try and help people who are less fortunate than I am, because in the end we are all only human.”

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