'Equality Fair' at Lee school shows all is not fair in America

LEE — Issues like fair and living wages, civil rights and human welfare are not only national legislative issues, but they're talking points in local school hallways, too. In particular, these issues literally took over the hallways of Lee Middle and High School on Friday when the members of the school's Social Justice Club held an "Equality Fair," with exhibits and activities staged in each of the school's wings. The day's program also included guest speaker Jane Swift, former Massachusetts governor and senator, speaking on working toward social justice, women in leadership, and the ways that young people can get involved in their community and politics.

From 8 to 10 in the morning, the whole school was let out of classes to tour the "Leesonian," a series of six exhibits detailing the history of "the fight for equality and advancement of various American groups." An exhibit was set up to examine the plights and advancements of the following U.S. populations: Native Americans, working people, women, African-Americans, immigrants, and the LGBTQIA community.

In the wing about immigrant history, for example, a banner above the corridor entryway read, "Welcome to Ellis Island." There, students could sign a book and write the name of their family's country of origin. Then, they could place a pin into a world map to demonstrate the range of world geography the school's population is connected with, from Australia to Sudan to Colombia and all throughout Europe among other home countries. A little further down the hall were posters explaining the requirements, process and purpose of an immigration policy currently being debated, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. There, students could also try taking the U.S. test for citizenship status.

"We started this club because we wanted to spread awareness and spread information on different issues happening in our country and the world," said Social Justice Club member Khali Zabian, a high school senior. "It's important to make sure we know these things, especially coming from a small town where there's not a lot happening. It still affects us."

The Social Justice Club formed last fall and its first big event was hosting a holiday fair with booths and activities directed at helping students better understand world religions and holiday traditions. The group currently has 35 members, all high school students, though middle schoolers are welcome to join. Some members think that's because there's a lack of understanding.

"During the fair we found a lot of students had questions about the club and a lot of them don't know what social justice is," said senior and club member, Alyssa Heath.

And that's not their fault. Social justice has proven to be a broad concept with many interpretations, but these days most often comes up in liberal and progressive campaigns and rhetoric. At the heart of it, it's about defining the means and actions to benefit a community as a whole, which may include creating systems for more equal distribution of wealth, resources, opportunities and privileges within a society.

For Social Justice Club member and junior Mika Frasher, social justice is simple: "It's about peace and love and not judging." And for member and senior Sophie Burnell, the club is about having a "safe space" where students can talk about issues they're passionate about and also "hear different perspectives."

Which is in part why the club decided to bring in Jane Swift as their speaker. Swift held office as a moderate Republican in a primarily liberal commonwealth. She was also the youngest woman at the time to hold a leadership position and did so while pregnant, meaning she could speak to issues of gender bias and ageism, among other issues she faced while campaigning and in office.

"I'm really impressed that your school decided to take the last day before a holiday break to think about and reflect on equality," Swift told the students and staff she addressed in the school's auditorium.

During her talk, Swift fielded questions from students on tax reform; sexual assault crimes and accusations against political leaders; environmental policy; her current political affiliations, and how students can get involved in politics.

Afterward, some students said that while they didn't all agree or believe what Swift had to say, they did commend her for being there and sharing her experiences and views.

"I think politicians should really visit schools more," said senior Spencer Garnish. He said at first he judged Swift for her Republican views, but continued to listen and found some common ground with the issues she talked about.

He and classmates Jaileen Smith, Josh Topham and junior Erin Somes said they feel schools under-inform them about local and political issues. Teacher Jane McEvoy said she's heard that sentiment and said that some teachers are afraid to talk about the issues or their own views for fear of being labeled as biased or preaching views.

Smith said she'd rather hear adults speak more candidly to them about the issues, and "actually tell us what they feel."

The students say conversations and experiences like these can better help them form their opinions and beliefs and be better prepared citizens.

"We need to know more things, like life skills for after high school," Topham said.

Somes agreed, saying how they might study English and math, "but they don't teach us about taxes."

Senior and Social Justice Club member Mikayla DeSantis, who addressed the school and introduced Swift as a speaker said she's taken these matters into her own hands, learning about politics and policies on her own time. She's not an aspiring politician — "I want to be a nurse," she said — but "I'm very interested in politics."

DeSantis said she understands a lot of students don't think about or have the time or interest in checking multiple sources after reading posts or articles, and that social media and the millions of news and opinion websites out there can further make issues seem murky.

But, if anything, she said she hopes students can take the time to at least think about the issues their local, state and national societies face.

"I hope that the day opens [students'] eyes and teaches them to be open to hearing others' opinions. Maybe that will make people come together and make a plan to make the world a better place," DeSantis said.


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