When I started I did not know what it would turn into. I didn’t know it would get this big,” says Christina Meyer when she describes the social justice club she started at her high school, Holy Angels in Richfield. “When I started I did not think I could affect this [school] community like I did.”
Meyer grew up going to meetings with her mother, who headed up the social justice commission at their Catholic church and was a women’s rights supporter. As a teenager, what struck her was hearing about the horrible trauma of the Rwandan genocide. She also was impacted by meeting a Holocaust survivor.
Meyer will be attending her fourth Summer Institute this year held at Mitchell Hamline Law School. Sponsored by World Without Genocide, it convenes educators, leaders and high school and college students to explore the connection between genocide and other human rights abuses. Students learn how to take local and global action. According to Meyer, that is where she acquired the skills to “know where to go if you have a problem or if you see something problematic happening in your community. I can see a problem and I can figure out what needs to happen.”
And she has.
As a fifteen year old she found a faculty member and advocate for the social justice club she wanted to start in her high school. As a first action she invited a speaker about the Congolese genocide to her school. There were 15-20 student members the first year. Three years later there are 54 on their email list.
“It’s exciting to see younger students taking leadership roles as I end my time at the school,” Meyer reflected. She didn’t find it hard to start the human rights group. She found that her peers “were excited about changing things. I don’t know a lot of people my age who don’t care about at least one issue. You just try to find that one thing.”
The students learned how to make complicated issues interesting to a wide audience. They dug in on issues that might not be spotlighted in the mass media, such as the juvenile court system, human trafficking in Minneapolis and cultural genocide. They sponsored a week on mental health awareness. Social studies teachers taught about post-traumatic stress syndrome. Science teachers looked at eating disorders. English classes discussed test anxiety. They invited a parent to speak about a teenage child who died by suicide, and discussed teen depression and grief. This year the club has started a gay straight alliance.
Meyer has observed that “many kids my age have a desire to make a better society but they don’t know how to take concrete action, so they engage in slacktivism – showing support of a cause but taking limited action, such as buying a T-shirt from an activist website or posting support on Facebook.” She aims to take that passion “a step further and say, ‘here are concrete things you can do.'”
What’s Meyer’s advice for students wanting to start something in their own schools? Find a teacher or staff person who is passionate about your issue and can be your group’s advocate. Find a core group of students to help. You don’t have to do it all yourself.
As she approaches high school graduation, Meyer is proud of her younger student mentees. “They are blossoming in these leadership roles.
“If at 15 I could make a change in a community of 800 people [in my high school], what can I do in a community of 22,000 [at Barnard College]?”