When my principal introduced me at a Board of Education meeting, highlighting the Presidential Scholar award (141 high school seniors are chosen each year to be recognized by the president for academic excellence), he told the audience that, after my English teacher and I were done, "Washington would never be the same." I suspect he was thinking back to my role in a walkout that my fellow students and I had planned and executed to highlight the genocide in Darfur. I'm not sure if he was kidding about shaking up Washington, but I took him seriously.
I had planned to say something to President Bush. My family and I are long-time members of our local Civil Liberties Union and founders of the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives, and I've been at protests since I was in utero. Moreover, as a citizen I know that the president is responsible to me, and this was likely to be the only time I would be in the same room with him to speak my mind. I couldn't let the opportunity pass.
When I got to Washington, before I so much as mentioned my intent to speak out, many of my fellow scholars were admitting that they, too, had been planning to speak. I was overwhelmed by the passion of my classmates, and we agreed that our voices would be much more powerful and effective if we united around a single issue.
This was easier said than done. Many of us disagreed on what the single most important issue was and how we should address it. Many of us suggested the need to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, but some felt that this issue was too divisive. Other students wanted to focus on a school-related issue by addressing the flaws in No Child Left Behind.
We ended up agreeing to focus on torture and detention because we felt that the issue of human rights was non-partisan, something everyone could agree on. More than that, the denial of human rights is the quintessential example of this administration's penchant for secrecy and its disdain for the humanity of its "enemies."
We stayed up until two in the morning, working on the letter. Our final language included, "We have been told that we represent the best and brightest of our nation. Therefore, we believe we have a responsibility to voice our convictions. We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions, and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants."
Later that morning, we worked on getting signatures. I thought it would be nice if we got a tenth of the Presidential Scholars to sign, but, when I checked in with Mari at lunch, she told me we were two signatures short of fifty people, over a third of the scholars in four hours.
Many media outlets from NBC to CNN to the AP to The New York Times to NPR have covered what happened next: Mari handed the president a copy of the letter, he read it, and then he said, "America doesn't torture." I gave the other copy of our letter (both handwritten, as we had no access to printers or copy machines) to a reporter at the No Child Left Behind photo-op for which the scholars were, apparently, supposed to be the backdrop.
I was delighted that the tenor of the coverage was almost uniformly positive. It focused, appropriately, on the number of scholars behind our letter and, as Ed Henry on Anderson Cooper 360 commented, "When you read the four-part piece in The Washington Post, day after day, very senior people (Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice) were afraid to stand up to Vice President Cheney ... but high school students were not afraid to do this." This focus on the power of students who speak their minds reminded me of my experience in my school's walkout for Darfur.
When we started planning the walkout, I figured it would be mostly me and my politically active friends from World Affairs Club. To my surprise, once word got out about what we were planning, students came up to me by the dozens in the hallways, all wanting to sign up. I warned everyone who came to me that we could get in trouble, that anyone who signed up might be putting him or herself at risk for suspension or worse, but everyone still signed on. "This is more important," they said. "It's our chance to do something, even if we're only in high school."
Robert Kennedy once said,
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation ... It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man [or woman] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, [s/]he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
On the day that we handed the president the letter, the walls didn't come down. Illegal detentions and torture didn't end. But I was inspired to see my fellow scholars care so much about our country and our world and be moved to fix it. And we were inspired by the calls for action that followed our dissent. From students on facebook with whom I was previously unacquainted, to an English teacher in New Hampshire, to Senator (and presidential candidate) Chris Dodd, people from different backgrounds and walks of life seconded our letter and called for change.
I'm going to college in September, and I'll certainly be keeping up the fight, but this experience has stripped away some of my Generation Y cynicism about citizens' apathy and uninvolvement with respect to politics. I learned that, once citizens are given data, they can rise to the occasion. They just need to be asked.
So, next time I hear reports of injustice, as I reach for a placard, I'll also reach for a phone. As I create a flyer, I'll also facebook my online friends. I hope you will, too. And then, maybe -- just maybe -- the walls will come down.