Friday, October 2, 2020

Windham Civil Rights Team a beacon of hope for champions of equality

By Ed Pierce

All students attending Windham High School
are welcome to join the Civil Rights Team,
an afterschool group that strives to ensure that
the school and the community are safe, inclusive
and supportive for all. COURTESY PHOTO

For students who stand up for the American principles of equality, are opposed to discrimination of all types, and believe in fair treatment for everyone, there has never been a more important time to be a member of Windham’s High School’s Civil Rights Team.

A fixture at the school for more than eight years, the goals of the Civil Right Team are to educate, advocate and to make visible identities and issues related to civil rights. Participants receive guidance and support from the Maine attorney General’s Office and the Maine Civil Rights Team Project.

According to Nicole Densmore, WHS faculty advisor for the group, all students are welcome to join the Civil Rights Team to help them ensure that the school and community are safe, inclusive, and supportive for all.

“We are ready and willing to teach or talk about race and skin color, national origin and ancestry, religion, disabilities, gender, including gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation with our teachers, classmates, and community,” she said.

As the group’s faculty advisor, Densmore said she’s dedicated to providing opportunities for students to build more equitable relationships and understandings of their communities.

“I feel privileged to serve my community by teaching and empowering others,” she said. “I truly admire and respect these students and care about the educational and emotional needs of each team member. They teach me as much as I teach them. Teaching them advocacy, networking, and effective civic engagement strategies when we can’t meet together physically is very difficult, but I am up for the challenge and know they will rise to it. I worry that their work to foster and support an inclusive, accepting, and diverse culture at Windham High School will be full of unique safety, legal, and resource obstacles in this unprecedented time.”

The skills in team and civic engagement skill-building that students gain by participating in the Civil Rights Team is unlike any other school-based learning experience, Densmore said.

“I believe that each member is empowered by being an active part of the school community,” Densmore said. “Through their advocacy work in CRT, these students apply their passion and knowledge to solving problems within the school and educating the greater community.”

Presently, the Civil Rights Team has about 30 members and meet remotely for about an hour twice a week after school.

Among projects the Civil Rights Team has worked on previously are a Day of Welcome for All, an awareness and advocacy campaign to make school safe for all students; composing an open letter to the Skowhegan School Board regarding their school mascot; collaborating with Windham High’s School Resource Officer and school administrators to reeducate and respond to community questions and concerns about the Black Lives Matter movement; creating lists of best practices, guides, and advisements for teachers to ensure their classrooms are safe and inclusive for all students and staff; and planning Civil Rights Movie Nights to invite the community to learn from guest speakers and panel
discussions in conjunction with the screening of a civil rights-focused film.

To succeed in their work, she said that students need the support of the community. 

“We are not politically affiliated. Though students may have diverse opinions and perspectives, no political agenda or perspective is privileged on our team,” Densmore said. “We are advocates for civil rights and do not promote or espouse any particular political values or policies. Many different systems of belief and perspectives are honored in our team.”

The pandemic has created a unique and challenging environment for Civil Right Team members, but Densmore said she is confident those barriers will be overcome.

“We are trying to address the inequities the pandemic has brought to the surface. It is difficult to address the inequities as we also experience them,” she said. “We will be accomplishing this work virtually in many cases as we are ever mindful of the CDC Guidelines and district regulations.”

Windham High Senior Maria Condon, 17, said she chose to join the Civil Rights Team because she likes the energy of the group.

Using your voice is important. I’m not afraid to voice my opinion because I learn from others when I do,” Condon said. “I wasn’t sure about joining the team as a student. But my friend Tedi recommended I join her at a meeting because I’m energetic and passionate and like a good debate.”

Junior Telia Bowen, 16, said the Civil Rights Team can give valuable insight into the opinions of others.

“Even if you're neutral or don't really know a lot of the things that are going on in the country, it’s a good way to get informed and see other people's perspectives on everything,” Bowen said.

Junior Parduong Bol, 16, said she thinks the Civil Rights Team is a great opportunity to grow and learn.

“I personally think that the Civil Rights Team is something wonderful for WHS to participate in,” Bol said. “Not only does it create opportunities for all, but it helps educate people on topics that they are not fully educated on or topics that don't personally affect them.”

Bol said that social justice issues are relevant not only in school, but for the community as well and the Civil Rights Team can help students view the big picture from their vantage point at Windham High School.

It helps people look at real-world problems by looking at them from multiple viewpoints,” she said. “Social justice helps us work toward celebrating diversity in our communities.”

Students are eager to begin work with the Civil Rights Team this school year but are aware of the challenges ahead.

“I think people have a hard time accepting differences of opinion. I hope we keep speaking out and learning it is ok to have different perspectives,” Condon said. “Also, connection issues and technology might make it hard to hear and understand each other when we meet remotely. Learning and working together when we can’t meet in person has lots of challenges.”

Bol said she thinks the biggest challenge facing Civil Rights Team members this year is going to be people who aren’t willing to work with them.

Densmore said her task is to keep the group on task and striving to make a difference at the school and in the community.

We know the road is long and the work is hard. We know the obstacles are many and the resources may not be plentiful or in place,” she said. “Nonetheless, as the rest of the United States has shown in the past months, the need to highlight and correct inequities, educate, and bring together people with different perspectives and agendas to create safe spaces for all races, ethnicities, and cultures is a priority. Education is the key to understanding the needs of communities and making positive and lasting changes.”

Densmore said she understands that others might not be as comfortable or open to discussions about civil rights-related topics for fear of being divisive or misunderstood.

“We hope to foster acceptance and understanding by continuing to have tough conversations and do difficult, meaningful work and we invite Windham High School and beyond to join us.” <

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