ACLU Announces Winners of 2005 Youth Activist Scholarship

April 12, 2005 12:00 am

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High School Seniors Across the Nation Honored for Commitment to Civil Liberties

NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union today announced the winners of its Youth Activist Scholarship for 2005. Ten high school seniors from around the country were selected to receive $4,000 each to honor their outstanding work to protect civil liberties, especially the rights of young people.

The Scholarship was created in 2000 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.

“In a time when our core freedoms and values are being undermined every day, it is vital that the next generation of civil libertarians stands up for their rights,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “The ACLU Youth Activist Scholarship is an opportunity to recognize the bravery of these students and their role as the true defenders of democracy.”

Among this year’s winners are Hala Saadeh of Massachusetts, who helped raise awareness of religious and ethnic profiling after she was reported as a “suspicious person” on a train and was singled out for a search; Brandon Roane of Maryland, who has become a leader in the fight for increased funding for Baltimore city schools; and Jarred Gamwell of North Carolina, an ACLU client who made national headlines for speaking out against censorship after his pro-gay student government campaign posters were torn down by school officials.

Click here for full profiles and photos of all ten winners. Read below for select highlights of their accomplishments:

“Maria Gomez” has suffered so much abuse at the hands of her peers and her teachers at Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles, California because of her bisexuality that she did not feel safe using her real name when joining an ACLU lawsuit charging her school with discrimination. Her teachers “outed” her to her family and called her a “sinner” and “unholy,” knowing such words would hurt Maria, who regularly attends Catholic mass and considers herself deeply religious. Despite being discriminated against by school administrators and physically threatened by her peers, Maria refused to drop out of the It’s OK Club-a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at her school. Instead, Maria filed an administrative complaint with the school district and joined a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Southern California on behalf of lesbian, gay and bisexual students.

“I am confident that what the club and I have accomplished at Washington will truly make a difference for future students. I will continue to fight for the rights that belong to every person in this country and I plan on staying active with the GSA network throughout college,” Maria said.

Jonathan Minton co-founded the ACLU Club at Bartlett High School in Anchorage, Alaska after researching the history of the ACLU for a semester-long project on government. Jonathan has attended board committee meetings of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union and offers up creative ideas on ways to reach out to and engage more young people. As co-founder of the ACLU Club, Jonathan coordinates weekly meetings and is pursuing a list of concerns brought by students related to free speech and due process.

“I feel a need to help those whose civil rights and liberties have been denied them because of their race, religion, age, sexual orientation, sex, or anything else,” Jonathan said. “It’s a need and a passion that grows more and more every day and I’m certain it will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Trevor Gilmore, a dedicated Boy Scout from childhood, had to work hard to establish the first Gay-Straight Alliance at A.C. Davis High School in the politically conservative Yakima, Washington area. But his hard work paid off. The administration and the Associated Student Body approved the charter constitution that Trevor carefully researched and crafted, and he has since been approached by students from other schools in the area who are seeking to start Gay-Straight Alliances of their own.

Although he recently left the Boy Scouts because of its discriminatory policies toward gay people, Trevor still credits the organization for awakening his drive to become an activist: “I think the explanation of ‘Obedient’ in the Scout law book explains my motivations best: A Scout obeys the laws of his community and country. If he thinks these rules and laws are unfair, he tries to have them changed in an orderly manner rather than disobey them.”

Cristhian Ponce Barranco, a senior at The Beacon School in New York, New York, has been a leader in the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Teen Health Initiative, a peer education and outreach program that promotes minors’ rights to access health care. Cristhian presents workshops and peer trainings to inform youth in his own immigrant community about reproductive rights. He has managed to balance his peer education responsibilities, his academic workload and his duties as captain of his cross-country track team despite major personal obstacles: due to family circumstances beyond his control, Cristhian has been financially self-supporting.

“I am proof that there is no obstacle that should prevent anyone from at the least obtaining knowledge of their rights,” said Cristhian. “I am fortunate that I know what my rights are, but not everyone is that lucky. I will always work to defend the rights of immigrants.”

Hala Saadeh, who is a senior at Fitchburg High School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, experienced religious and ethnic profiling firsthand when she was reported as a “suspicious person” on board a train and was singled out for a search. Instead of remaining a silent victim, Hala brought the incident to the attention of the public by writing letters to her local newspaper and to The Boston Globe. Since then, Hala has been a featured speaker at a rally in downtown Boston and at a screening of Robert Greenwald’s documentary “Unconstitutional.” She was also featured in a special episode of the ABC television program “Chronicle,” which was shown on the third anniversary of the signing of the Patriot Act.

“Between my work with the ACLU, Amnesty International, and the activism I have encouraged at my school during workshops and activities, I truly feel that being an activist is who I am and who I will be for the rest of my life,” Hala said.

Jarred Gamwell sought representation from the ACLU after posters promoting his campaign for student body president were torn down by officials at Hunt High School in Wilson, North Carolina because his campaign slogans referenced the fact that he was openly gay. After discovering that two of the posters — one with the slogan “Queer Eye for Hunt High” and another reading “Gay Guys Know Everything!” — had been taken down, Jarred went to school administrators only to be told that it was the principal who had ordered the removal of the posters. Instead of backing down, Jarred reached out to the ACLU to sue the school for discrimination and his lawsuit received widespread media attention. He continues to use his lawsuit as a springboard for raising awareness of the sanctioned discrimination faced by LGBT youth in schools across the country. Last summer, he participated in a panel discussion at the ACLU’s national membership conference on making schools safer for LGBT kids.

“What our future needs is honorable citizens who will inspire harmony through the elimination of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution based on non-traditional cultural and ethical backgrounds,” Jarred said.

Amanda Gelender, a senior at Castro Valley High School in Castro Valley, California, has been a leader with the Youth Activist Committee of the ACLU of Northern California for the past two years, and has written several articles and editorials in her school newspaper on key civil liberties issues. Amanda also started a chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy at her school and participated in the summer program, “The War on Drugs: A Field Investigation by and for Youth.” Because of her commitment to the issue, the Drug Policy Alliance chose Amanda to testify on its behalf before the California State Congress to support a bill that would halt random drug testing in schools. Her testimony was lauded by activists and policymakers, and the bill passed with bipartisan support before being vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“It’s so important to get youth involved and thinking about their rights in order to empower a generation that is often overlooked in society,” Amanda said.

Brandon Roane is ranked second in his class at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. As president of Baltimore’s “Algebra Project,” a peer-to-peer math-tutoring program, he has been a leader in the fight for increased funding for Baltimore city schools. He is deeply committed to this cause and has done many things to keep it in the public eye, including delivering a powerful speech on the steps of Baltimore City Hall, speaking at a pretrial conference, and appearing on television. He was also appointed to chair the Baltimore Education Advocates, a coalition of voluntary organizations and local PTAs and churches.

“Overall, my activism has led me to some important realizations in my life. The most important thing I have learned is that I have the power to stand up and be the factor that effects necessary change,” Brandon said.

Rebecca Rojer, as co-president of the ACLU chapter at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, has organized and promoted a number of events geared toward educating her peers about civil liberties issues. She organized an assembly on marriage equality for same-sex couples, held a screening of the Robert Greenwald film “Unconstitutional,” and cultivated a monthly civil liberties speaker series. She also developed a Banned Books Week program that targeted the entire student body at her school. In addition, her short film, “Distracted,” was chosen as a semi-finalist in the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Free Speech and Democracy Film Contest.

“While teenagers and young adults often have a reputation for apathy, I’ve found my generation to be dissatisfied with the direction our country is going in and eager to become active,” Rebecca said. “Over the past three years I have experimented with many different ways to make civil rights seem relevant to people my age.”

Lee Morehouse has always been outspoken about being raised by his gay father and his partner, and his unique family perspective has shaped his activism. Lee was elected president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Winnetonka High School in Kansas City, Missouri after leading a group of students through the club’s conception and creation. He served as a summer intern at the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri where he helped to advocate for gay rights. As a Quaker, Lee has also attended many protest rallies against the war in Iraq, and traveled with his father to a national protest in Washington, DC.

“My hope is that, during my life, I can be a part of protecting the rights of those harmed by discrimination of any kind,” Lee said. “I want to use my education as a springboard to social and civil activism.”

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