ACLU Announces Student Winners of First-Ever Youth College Scholarship

April 20, 2000 12:00 am

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NEW YORK, NY — The American Civil Liberties Union today announced the winners of a nationwide student activist college scholarship competition, awarding eight high school students $4,000 each for outstanding contributions in the struggle for civil liberties and the rights of young people.

The first annual ACLU College Scholarship for Youth Activism Award was created to recognize the efforts of graduating seniors who have demonstrated a strong commitment to civil liberties and civil rights through some form of student activism.

“The next generation of civil libertarians will face new challenges as part of their ongoing defense of the Bill of Rights,” said Ira Glasser, executive director of the national ACLU. “This scholarship gives the ACLU an opportunity to recognize the bravery of these students and the inspiration they provide.”

Student winners from California, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah, and Massachusetts were selected based on the personal statements they wrote describing their reasons for becoming civil rights/liberties activists. Some students established civil liberties clubs at their high schools, while others participated in ACLU lawsuits, or fought discrimination and censorship.

“I believed it was important for me to take a leadership role in promoting diversity and freedom,” said Utah high school winner Ivy Fox who has traveled across the country to speak to teachers, professors, administrators and citizens about sexual orientation harassment and how to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. “Bigotry is still very much alive, but through education, everyone has the power to fight it.”

Benjamin Finchem, a senior at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan, came to the ACLU’s attention after his eloquent defense of student civil liberties in the new “zero tolerance” environment of his high school. As a sophomore, Finchem drafted letters to school administrators and superintendents repudiating the repression suffered by students and teachers alike in a school district that pits safety against individuality and curiosity. His work in the school district yielded changes to the school board, as well as a suspension of the “zero tolerance” policies.

“The student body was not allowed to do much of anything expressive or creative because the rules clamped down so much on us and the administration purposely restrained student criticism through school press and in everyday school activity,” said Finchem. “I had to express what I felt, though the consequences seemed disheartening.”

Samantha Gellar, a senior at the Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina, made headlines in the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, the BBC, the Charlotte Observer and other media when her contest winning play “Life Versus the Paperback Romance” — about two women who fall in love — was censored by the theater that sponsored the competition. Saying that “the show must go on,” the ACLU of North Carolina and Time Out, a local gay and lesbian youth support group, helped Gellar stage the play.

“Once you’ve created something you feel proud of it,” said Gellar who questioned why her play — which has no sex or nudity other than a quick kiss — wasn’t suitable for the stage. “I thought my play should be staged and consider the censorship a form of discrimination.”

Shirley Lin is a student from Claremont California. Because she is an immigrant from China, she was forced out of her public school at the end of her freshman year as a result of the unfair and discriminatory 1996 Immigration Reform laws passed by Congress. Lin fought back with the help of the ACLU of Southern California and became a volunteer and student organizer for the ACLU. She started down a path of legal research and activism that ultimately enabled her to help other students as far away as Virginia who found themselves confronted with similar injustices.

“I told myself that I had to fight back and return with my rights intact and that out of all the legal resources in America, there had to be one who would help,” said Lin who will be attending Stanford in the fall. “I knew I had to fight the discrimination and that even if I failed, I would fail trying.”

Gina Russell, a senior at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa, in her freshman year founded Spectrum, a local Gay/Straight Student Coalition, and then went on to organize the Iowa Association of Gay Straight Alliances. Her work has led to a sea of change in the way lesbian, gay, and bi-sexual students are treated in her state.

“If any of my work has saved one student from feeling the way I did when I was first coming out, or even hurting him or herself, from doing drugs, or from dropping out of school, all of the sacrifice has been worth it,” Russell said.

Shayna Gelender, a senior at Castro Valley High School in California, this past summer got a first hand look at the issues surrounding youth homelessness. Participating in an intense nine-day trip sponsored by Howard A. Friedman First Amendment Project of the ACLU of Northern California, she traveled with twenty other high school students from San Francisco to Los Angeles, visiting youth drop-in centers, group homes, needle exchange programs, youth employment centers and the streets. She is also the editor of her school’s newspaper and a youth leader in the movement to stop the passage of dangerous juvenile justice state legislation.

“Activism is a way of life for me,” said Gelender, who will attend Mills College in the fall and plans to focus on law, journalism, and social welfare. “I think that in order to protect anyone’s rights, we must protect everyone’s rights.”

Nichole Griffin from Cleveland, OH, expressed her staunch support for civil liberties and civil rights by volunteering for the ACLU of Ohio and writing articles, planning educational programs, and reaching out to other students. Griffin sought to learn more about civil liberties and their importance to high schoolers.

“The more I got involved with the various ACLU forums and special programs, the more I saw how wide the ACLU’s net was cast,” Griffin said. “The positions are sometimes controversial, but dissension is important for education; it forces us to say what’s on our minds.”

Jonathan Adames is a senior at English High School in Boston, Massachusetts. He was a participant in the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Project HIP-HOP – a summer field program in which students travel through the South and meet with civil rights leaders. Since his return he has become a leader in ACTION (Achieving Community Through Involvement In Organizing Now), a youth civil rights coalition, and a journalist for a students’ rights newspaper, Rising Times.

The ACLU college scholarship fund was made possible by a grant from an anonymous donor.

For more information and photos of the individual winners, see:

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