Youth Activism at Independent Schools Transforms Communities, Students

Group of Teenagers Volunteer with Raised Hands to the Sky.

Young people today are taking the lead on climate change, gun control, and other pressing large-scale issues. Some of these problems, such as gun violence, disproportionately affect teens and adolescents. In other cases, such as with climate change, young people are increasingly aware that their futures are at stake unless their generation demands change.

Growing up in the digital age means today’s youth also tend to be aware of human rights issues that may not directly affect them, and many are moved to take concrete action in support of those who come from less privileged backgrounds. 

At three U.S. independent schools, students have had unique, in-depth learning experiences that exposed them to previously unknown stories of social injustice. These experiences inspired them to change entire communities and, in turn, themselves. 

The Pad Project

A group of 30 students led by their teachers Melissa Berton and Phu Tranchi, EdD, at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood, California, raised $75,000 to spread awareness of the need for menstrual equity, which includes access to feminine hygiene products and the right to attend school while menstruating for low income women and girls throughout the world. 

Oakwood School English teacher and Pad Project CEO Melissa Berton accepts an Oscar for PERIOD.END OF SENTENCE, the documentary short film she and her students produced about menstrual equity. (Photo credit Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

The money helped to create an Academy Award-winning documentary called PERIOD.END OF SENTENCE as well as fund a machine that manufactures pads operated by Indian women in the village of Kathikhera near Delhi. 

The students first decided to create the documentary after learning about menstrual equity during a 2013 trip to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, which is designed to include young girls in global conversations about women’s equality, Berton says. There, they heard about the plight of girls in low- and middle-income countries who frequently drop out of school when they start to menstruate because they lack access to feminine hygiene products. 

The students figured that if they hadn’t heard about this problem before, many other people were likely unaware, Berton says. They determined to produce a film that documented the process by which a pad machine was installed in the Indian village of Kathikhera and how it empowered the local women who learned to manufacture and market their own brand of pads.  

The students decided to raise funds through the online platform Kickstarter, which was a risk, Berton says, because projects that don’t meet their fundraising goal have to forfeit all their money. Within 30 days, however, the Oakwood students had raised $45,000, gaining publicity as “One of Kickstarter’s Projects We Love.” They decided to call their enterprise the Pad Project.

The students hired director Rayka Zehtabchi to produce a 25-minute documentary on the women of Kathikhera and their newly established brand of pads, Fly. The women chose the name because they wanted to “soar,” according to the Pad Project website. 

After winning more than 15 awards at international film festivals, PERIOD.END OF SENTENCE was picked up by Netflix in February 2019 and later that month won the Oscar for best documentary short film.

Following the Oscar win, the Pad Project received more than 19,000 emails from individuals across 94 countries, many of whom work for nongovernmental organizations, asking for guidance on how to install a pad machine in their community. They also heard from people in the United States who wanted to increase access to free menstrual products in their local schools.

The Pad Project is now home to a variety of menstrual equity initiatives. These include providing more pad machines for women in India and Afghanistan as well as working with women in Sierra Leone to create reusable cloth pads.

A chapter of Girls Learn International (GLI) in India, an organization that empowers middle and high school students across the world to advocate for human rights, equality and universal education. Oakwood School also has a GLI chapter, whose members helped found the Pad Project.

Throughout the project’s seven-year existence, the students at Oakwood have been very intentional about forming a genuine partnership with their counterparts in India, according to Berton. The young activists partnered with Action India, a nonprofit that works to empower women through public health and civic engagement initiatives, and made a point of acknowledging their own privilege as individuals who “never had a problem going into a market and buying pads,” Berton says. “We had to own that. Not to admit it would be a mistake.” 

In March 2018, a group of students traveled to India to see the work firsthand and make connections with their partners at Action India.

Mason Maxam, a junior at Oakwood, first became involved with the Pad Project when she was in middle school and was one of the students who went on the 2018 India trip. The experience “reinforced the importance of building strong, meaningful partnerships with people around the world and making sure we are learning from each other,” she says.

The Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition

Savannah Shepherd, a senior at the Sanford School in Hockessin, Delaware, founded the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition in 2018 after visiting the National Memorial on Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and learning about the 1903 lynching of George White. 

Sanford senior Savannah Shepherd holds a large jar of soil gathered by all present at the October 2019 marker ceremony. The soil “represents [lynching victim George White’s] blood, sweat, and tears,” Shepherd says, and comes from the site of White’s imprisonment just prior to his murder.
An African American resident of Delaware, White had been awaiting trial on accusations of attacking a White woman when a mob broke into his jail cell and burned him alive. Shepherd was appalled at the story and at the fact that she had never been told this part of her state’s history. She decided to launch the coalition to memorialize White and to help people better understand the link between the historic practice of lynching and other forms of racial discrimination that continue to occur today.

After “seeing how much I didn’t know and seeing how all of it was connected, like enslavement and mass incarceration,” Shepherd says, she felt compelled “to make sure that no one forgot [White’s] name.”

Shepherd decided to place a historical marker for White at the site of his imprisonment. Throughout the process of registering the marker with local government officials, she worked to share his story with her community. She led a remembrance ceremony when the marker was installed in June 2019, only for it to be stolen two months later. Undefeated, Shepherd and the coalition installed a new marker in October.

The Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition now has more than 200 members.— primarily young people and local professionals — and is working to educate the public on other incidents of racial terror in Delaware. 

Furthermore, Shepherd is working with the Delaware Historical Society and the University of Delaware to uncover other lynchings in the state that haven’t been well documented. Eventually, she hopes to create curriculum about lynchings to provide students with a more in-depth education about racial terror.

Her experiences leading the George White memorial project “completely changed the path I want to take,” Shepherd says. She previously planned on becoming a surgeon; now, she wants to be a civil rights lawyer.

Learning about White’s murder and the reality of racial violence has taught her to see the world in a new way, she says. 

“It can be hard to look sometimes,” Shepherd says, “but I think it is so much better to see the world the way it actually is.”

#OwnUpAlabama

A group of high school students at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan, Connecticut, have been working to obtain a public apology from the state of Alabama for a Black man named Anthony Ray Hinton who was on death row from 1985 to 2015  — a total of 30 years — for a crime he didn’t commit.

Anthony Ray Hinton is one of the longest serving death row prisoners in the state of Alabama. He is the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1983. Today, he is a community educator for the racial and economic justice organization, Equal Justice Initiative, as well as an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.

In addition to bringing their request to U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., when he visited St. Luke’s for a talk on civil discourse, as well as contacting the Alabama legislature, students have primarily drummed up support on social media via the hashtag #OwnUpAlabama.

Hinton is the author of a popular memoir called The Sun Does Shine and was awarded an honorary doctorate in May 2019 by St. Bonaventure University in New York. He came to speak at St. Luke’s in December 2018, where he captivated his audience, including senior Janelle Johnson, a leader within the school’s Black Student Union (BSU). She describes Hinton as being “like an uncle to all of us and such a great person all around.”

Janelle Johnson

Johnson and other members of the BSU reconnected with Hinton in March 2019 on a week-long civil rights history trip. They toured various historic sites in Georgia and Alabama, such as Ebenezer Baptist Church and The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. They spent a memorable afternoon with Hinton in Montgomery, walking together through The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. 

St. Luke’s middle school counselor and admissions officer Blake Bueckman and student Nicole Ayoub hold copies of Hinton’s memoir during his December 2018 campus visit.

Hinton told the students he had started working as a community educator for the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization focused on reducing mass incarceration and challenging racial and economic injustice. Inspired by Hinton’s activism, the students decided to launch a social media campaign on his behalf. 

Within “an hour or two” of visiting with Hinton, they created the hashtag #OwnUpAlabama. Using the hashtag, they circulated a change.org petition for an apology that received 2,590 signatures. 

Jordan Robinson

Johnson and fellow senior Jordan Robinson say that it’s been difficult to obtain the desired apology, primarily because Hinton sued the state of Alabama for one million dollars when he was acquitted. Although he didn’t win, state officials are wary that an apology would make it appear as though there are legal grounds to award the money, Johnson says.

Still, coordinating the project has been transformative for the students involved. Both Johnson and Robinson say it’s been an empowering and enlightening experience. “It’s definitely put into perspective how powerful it is to be a young person in today’s technological world and the impact of social media,” Robinson says.

As for Johnson, she has been surprised by the political power she wields as a single individual. “The fact that I’ve been in contact with my representative, who’s been in contact with a U.S. governor, is just kind of mind-blowing,” she says.

Ginger O’Donnell is the assistant editor of DiversityIS.