By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
It’s a challenge, a lesson, and empowerment.
Every year, eighth graders at Explorer West Middle School (WSB sponsor) are exhorted, invited, and assigned to “Change the World.”
That’s the theme of the group projects they must complete and present before leaving EWMS and moving on to high school.
We’ve featured some in past years – two years ago, a group that wanted to make sure kids of all abilities had a place to play, and made a difference in a local project; last year we featured a group advocating for expanding the availability of healthful food.
This year’s topics were, according to teacher Tim Owens, as chosen by students, all relating to sustainability:
– Bullying of students with disabilities
– Sexual harassment and assault in schools
– Immigrant rights
– Assistance for refugees
– Sex trafficking
– Youth homelessness
– Depression among adolescents
– Gender inequality (regarding pay)
Along with group projects, EWMS students invited world-changers to speak with them about some of those problems and what is being/can be done about them.
We were there on Tuesday afternoon as the entire school gathered in the gym to hear from four people representing organizations working on civil/human rights, and then moved on to classrooms where the eight groups of eighth-graders made their project presentations.
In the gym, the first to speak was Yvonne Sanchez from the American Civil Liberties Union, explaining to students that it’s not a “bureaucratic, hierarchical organization, (it’s a) membership organization.”
The ACLU does not directly provide social services to people, but rather advocates through lobbying, research, education, and lawsuits, Sanchez said. In the latter, the ACLU takes on “those cases that will have the biggest impact on the most people. … All the cases have to do with illegal or unconstitutional actions by government, where the government is abusing its powers. The ACLU often partners … with nonprofit law firms.”
Along with its affiliates, she said, it’s brought 13 challenges against the presidential policy dubbed the “Muslim Ban.” In our state, she said, in partnership with the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project (NWIRP), the ACLU took legal action against the Border Patrol for “stopping anybody who looked to them like an ‘illegal alien'” on the Olympic Peninsula … people who happened to be Latino.
Student questions included why the US hasn’t given due process and all constitutional rights to all people within our borders? Sanchez said she believes it has – observing that the Preamble to the Constitution begins “We The People,” not “We The Citizens.”
An Explorer West alum (2002) who works for NWIRP, AnnaRae Goethe, was the next speaker, via Skype from Tacoma (where NWIRP has an office because of the federal detention center) – she’s onscreen below, with teacher Owens on tech duty:
Goethe began by addressing the oft-asked question of “why someone would come to the United States without documentation. … It’s really really hard for people from other countries to come to the US legally, especially if they come from a Third World country that doesn’t have as high a standard of living … you have to be eligible for a visa and there have to be enough visas for you to come.” Some visas are available if you have a job guaranteed, or if you have family here, Goethe said, but the numbers available each year “are very small.” People aren’t coming because they’re “trying to cheat the system” but because “they have no other options” … where they come from, they’re being tortured, or starved, and they have to do something to survive.
She told the students that NWIRP is a nonprofit legal organization, with lawyers and advocates in four offices – Seattle, Tacoma, Wenatchee, Granger – focused on education and policy work as well as direct representation, which is what Goethe does, specifically representing not-detained youth under 18, most applying for special immigrant juvenile status, most abused or neglected.
Concluding her presentation, Goethe drew wild applause from the students of her alma mater.
She was followed by Rachel, a program coordinator at Stolen Youth, speaking about the commercial sexual exploitation of youth.
The group is a nonprofit “raising awareness and funds” for children who have been commercially sexually exploited – trafficked – and they also fund prevention, but not direct services.
Her key points: 1 of 3 teens will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of running away from home. 100,000-300,000 children nationally are exploited each year; about 500 in Seattle alone. “It can happen to anybody.” At least 50 percent of victims in King County are children of color; LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the exploited population, as are youth from the foster-care system.
And while the stereotypical exploited youth is a girl, Rachel said it happens to boys and young men too, though they don’t come forward as they often – sometimes because of stigmatization, sometimes because screening doesn’t always ask the question.
The final presenter was from one of the organizations supported by Stolen Youth, Seattle Against Slavery. Education director Tanya Hernandez shared the organization’s core belief, that “everyone deserves a life of safety, freedom, and hope.”
While SAS works on raising awareness, providing resources, and pointing to opportunities for action, her key point was about reducing the demand. That starts with helping explain why there’s a supply – “history of abuse, isolation/lack of support, poverty, insecurity, marginalized groups like immigrants, LGBT …”
The demand stems from “entitlement, greed, lack of empathy, media (depictions), misinformation/lack of information, sexism, racism.” And she told the EWMS students they can make a difference right now by making conscious consumer choices – “sweatshop-free, fair trade” – paying attention, being kind and accepting, and “critically look(ing) at the media you consume.” She also promoted slaveryfootprint.org, a website that through a visualized quiz of sorts will show how you’re unwittingly supporting slavery.
The gym event concluded with more questions from students. In response to one, ACLU’s Sanchez talked about interviewing youth detained by the Border Patrol. “It was so dismaying to hear the stories … one young man was sitting in a car at McDonald’s (on the US side) of the border and asked for documentation … a 15-year-old picked up crossing the border said, in Spanish – this will stay with me forever – he looked up and said, ‘Ma’am, you don’t know what poverty is.’ He had come to the U.S. to work to help his family survive.”
With that, teacher Owens sent the students off to the rooms where the eighth graders would make their presentations. We observed the first group.
Their project: Educating people about sex trafficking. They learned that 76 percent of sex transactions start online – “ordering a girl for sex is as easy as ordering a pizza … it shouldn’t be that easy.”
Their educational efforts included canvassing at public places in West Seattle, as well as writing to elected officials. They took flyers and petitions to Lincoln Park, Alki Beach, The Junction, and Admiral. They gathered 125 signatures, the students said, and sent them to Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
They had yet to receive responses from either senator, they said. And that, said teacher Owens when we asked him some followup questions before finishing this report, is a disappointment. He told us that he “also wrote preemptive letters to every possible elected official about our project and about the importance of responding to the students in some fashion. Students mailed letters in late April and followed up in early May with emails. So far, students have only received responses from about 1/5 of their contacts, which is disheartening, as an important piece of this whole project is civic engagement and the power of a student’s voice. Maybe more replies will come through after students leave school.”
After the events we covered on Tuesday, by the way, the student groups made their presentations again on Wednesday, this time, Owens explains, “in front of a 3-person panel of community members (Explorer West board members, former teachers, experts in sustainability). In this panel presentation, I am not even in the room. It’s just the group and the panel, which asks the students questions about their project after their presentation. The panelists then evaluate the students using a rubric I provide.”
The eighth graders’ commencement is on June 13th, after a half-day of classes ending this school year at EWMS.