Student Activists Taking Leadership Role in Addressing Social Issues
Sep 24, 2019 10:19PM
By Kathleen Ganster
Hampton Students being recognized by the Allegheny County Council as a No Place for Hate School.
Students of all ages are doing more than sitting in classrooms and participating in athletics. Many are now creating clubs and organizations or participating in community events that address social issues. The reasons are many and varied.
For Sari Abu-Hamad, it was the Margery Stoneman Douglas High School shootings combined with his personal background that motivated him into action. As a young child, Sari would travel to Lebanon, his parents’ homeland, and he remembered the unrest that broke out during one of those visits.
“It was so scary—I remember thinking ‘Am I next?’ People were afraid to go out,” the senior at North Allegheny High School said. “But I thought in the United States that we were safe; that at the very least we could go to school and be safe.”
After the Stoneman Douglas shootings in 2018, that feeling of safety changed and Sari felt moved to do something. Along with other classmates, Sari arranged for his school to participate in the nationwide school walkout following the shootings.
“People were afraid to go to school; they were scared for their safety. That wasn’t right,” he said.
Sari’s actions didn’t stop with that one activity. From there, he attended a local Peace Summit, representing high school students for common sense gun laws, and he continued forming local bonds with other likeminded people and organizations. This September, he was one of the organizers of the International Day of Peace Festival held in North Park.
“We all can do something to promote peace and awareness of others. Everyone can be active in changing something, no matter how small,” he said.
The JAM students at Avonworth School District prove that even the youngest of students can make a difference. After two of Maureen Frew’s first grade students came to her in 2016 asking if they could make and sell items to raise money for charity, JAM was formed. The letters stand for the first names of the two students–Julia and Amelia–and Maureen. Their first project was window clings made from recycled grocery bags (to keep costs down) that were sold for $1 each to other students, and the idea caught on quickly.
“First there were the two of them, then before I knew it, 22, then 42 and now we have more than 75 students involved,” Frew said.
The students in grades K- 6 meet once a week after school and create products to sell. Since there are more students with more proceeds, they have graduated from using recycled items to products made from purchased supplies.
To select the profit recipients, students research nonprofits and make presentations to other club members. All members then vote to select the recipient for that month.
“Many times, it will be places that have affected our children. We can’t give to a family or particular person, but we can give to an organization that means something to them,” Frew said. Past recipients have included the Susan B. Komen Foundation, the wig center at Allegheny General Hospital and the Apraxia Foundation.
JAM has also expanded into the T-shirt business. A kindergarten student approached Frew voicing her concern that children needed to be kinder on the playground. After making posters and buttons that didn’t create the change that the student had hoped for, Frew suggested T-shirts. The young student agreed.
“She said that we couldn’t get rid of the bullies, but with the shirts, we would always be able to tell who the kind kids were,” Frew said. The students created #BETHEKINDKID T-shirts, and the first order quickly sold out. They turned their project into another learning lesson and now outsource the shirts. Since April of 2018, they have sold more than 20,000 shirts and donated money to 37 charities.
What started as a small project at Avonworth has grown exponentially. Last year, Frew worked with five other schools to develop their own JAM clubs. “I hope to expand it to 10 more schools this year,” she said.
For the students in the Multicultural Student Association (MSA) at Hampton High School, their driving force was for others to learn more about those from minority ethnic and typically marginalized backgrounds.
“We were talking with friends and realized that we had no representation for students of diversity and wanted to change that,” said MSA President Jimin Oh, a senior.
The students formed the club in fall of 2018 and hosted a workshop for teachers to educate them in ways that they could help students of diversity feel more included, and to help the students increase awareness of different cultures.
“We wanted them to be more aware of how they could use student activism against actions against minority students,” Jimin said.
The students were an integral part of the school becoming a certified “No Place for Hate” school, which is an initiative created by the Anti-Defamation League. The students were also awarded the 2019 Diversity Award by the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission in which they were recognized for their dedication to diversity and nondiscrimination in their community.
Fellow senior Nicole Lara feels that the club is helping. “It gives kids who don’t see a lot of other students who look like them representation and helps them feel like they have been heard,” she said.
MSA’s goal for this academic year is to help educate their fellow classmates and to encourage others to explore opportunities for growth and education.
“We were amazed when we saw what opportunities are out there,” Jimin said.