ACLU educates teenagers in social justice

Following the 2016 presidential election, I realized that I had become more self-aware when it came to politics and the injustice that various minorities face. I felt like their voices and experiences, as well as mine by being a part of the communities, were silenced and deemed unimportant by our government. I sensed that I had an obligation to do something, and to use my privilege and platform as a writer to influence those around me. So, I submitted an application to the American Civil Liberties Union Summer Advocacy Institute, a week long camp held at Georgetown University, where rising juniors and seniors can learn more about social justice issues that interest them and how to bring activism into their community. Being surrounded with roughly 500 like-minded students was inspiring; I was excited so see so many young people with as much of a passion for change as I had.
Throughout the week, we were introduced to various speakers, mostly ACLU lawyers, covering a wide range of topics—from free speech to institutionalized racism. These speakers were able to take complicated and controversial issues, educate us on their impacts on our everyday lives and put into perspective their relevance.
One speaker in particular who moved me was Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney who specializes in free speech, privacy and technology. She spoke to us about the importance of free speech, and while I knew that the First Amendment was a key factor in our democracy, Rowland emphasized how essential it really is.
Without free speech, parties on either side of the political spectrum would be unable to voice their opinions. As frustrating as it might be to hear an opposing argument to your side, without First Amendment protections, none would have a platform to spout any views, whether hateful or inspirational. Sometimes, when arguing in support of a position, it can be easy to dismiss an opponent’s thoughts and voice, but in order to change minds we need to be patient and be able to peacefully converse with those different from us. And while there are topics, like white supremacy and racism, where there is no room for compromise or negotiation, it is crucial to realize which battles to fight, and be able to respectfully and civilly discuss these issues.
The most influential speaker at the ACLU Summer Advocacy Institute had to be whistle blower Edward Snowden. Snowden, a former technology contractor for the National Security Agency, exposed classified files that offered evidence of the government invading civilians’ right to privacy by reading and listening to phone calls and texts while ostensibly looking for signs of terrorism. Snowden currently is taking refuge in Russia, unable to return to the U.S. for fear of criminal prosecution due to this, his speech was done via video chat. Between taking curious questions about his living status and recounting his internal struggles and repercussions of his actions, Snowden offered insights into ongoing issues over cyber security. However, he made it very clear that he was not to be looked at as a hero. He said that he had just been doing what was right. He emphasized the importance of speaking out against our government when we see injustice and not reacting in silence and cooperation. We must take advantage of our democratic rights and use them to speak up when we feel that our government is not doing what is needed to protect the American people under the guidelines of the Constitution.
Before going to the ACLU camp, I was nervous about meeting those from all different walks of life and in different phases in their journey of activism. In such a rural and old-school town, I was confident in my views and wasn’t afraid to speak out, but going to a camp where hundreds of other students felt the same way—and might be able to express this more articulately and with more experience—made me question myself. While I definitely consider myself an advocate for social, racial and economic equality, I hadn’t made a huge impact in my community like other teenagers, and I was insecure in my abilities to represent my school and my ideals in such a new environment. But after the first few days, I found myself feeding off the energy and confidence of my peers, making me speak up more in discussions and not second-guessing whether what I had to say was “politically correct” or clashed with another student’s views. I had a newfound assurance of myself and found that hearing other students’ situations in their hometowns gave me a better understanding of other communities. This validates where I am on my journey, and even though I haven’t made the strides that Malala Yousafzai or Gavin Grimm have, that doesn’t make my fight and passion any less important.
That week was the most influential and inspiring week of my life; attending this camp put into perspective how passionate I am about making a change in current social justice issues. The amazing speakers and students made me realize how much a group of 500 students can touch different corners of the world and truly make a difference in each community, resulting in a monumental difference. Throughout history, the youth have been those at the forefront of change, making their voices heard and not backing down from the resistance of older generations. So, my advice to my peers is don’t be afraid to stir things up and create a little confrontation; go to protests, talk to your representatives, educate those in the dark, and speak out against hatred and bigotry.
We, the people, are responsible for our own fate, and without the help and support of one another, nothing will change. Remember: Dissent is patriotic.
~erica gudino, editor-in-chief