This summer, I worked with the SPAT program in Southold, NY. SPAT bring together the community to help preserve the numerous species of shellfish that inhabit Peconic Bay. These species include oysters, scallops, and clams. People from across Suffolk County volunteer three days a week to care for these animals, who are vital parts of the ecosystem. Apart from working at the extension, homemade cages are built and distributed to all of the volunteers. These allow them to grow their own seed during the summer months. The SPAT program has become so effective that people have begun to harvest their seed rather then overpopulate the bay. This keeps the food chain in tact, while providing delicious shellfish for hundreds of families across Suffolk County.
In January, the ninth grade started a service project called YPI (Youth and Philanthropy Initiative) that would last until the end of April. We were put into teams, and were instructed to think of a social issue present in the New York City community that we felt passionate about. After sorting through a couple different options, my team members and I settled on the topic of LGBTQ youth discrimination. During the project, we conducted research on our topic, through the library archives, and the web. After we had found out some information about our issue, we made websites about our social issues, and choose an organization to partner with that supported our cause. My group chose to work with the organization GLSEN. GLSEN is the largest educational network for the LGBTQ youth population across the United States. They provide most statistics about the LGBTQ youth discrimination, and have many programs that help pass legislative laws, and support students in their local communities. We chose GLSEN because they are an organization that, although broad, really cares for the students they want to make a difference for.
Coming into the project, when our team chose the issue of LGBTQ youth bullying, I was a little uncertain. I didn’t know a lot about the topic, and although I definitely knew it was an issue, I have grown up in an accepting community, so I haven’t had the chance with hands on experiences related to LGBTQ bullying. However, when our group dove into our research, I found that the project helped my see how important of an issue the topic is. The thing that really changed my attitude though, was when we went on our site visit. My group met with Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, and she helped us understand what an LGBTQ student is going through. She told us how students who are discriminated against because of their gender, or sexual orientation can drop out of school, and get involved in bad situations. This kind of bullying can eventually lead to extremely low self-esteem, and possible suicide. The idea that bullying simply on how students choose to lead their lives can kill a person really hit me, and made me realize that although LGBTQ youth bullying may not seem as important as some of the other social issues in New York City, it should be held in the same light.
Over the course of the project, I also developed some skills that I can take with me into the future. I learned how to find proper information, and combine that information into interesting, thought provoking points. I also learned how to present in front of a large audience. Having to do a formal presentation taught me how less is more in terms of a presentation, and how to get a point across while engaging the audience. The project overall had its ups and downs in terms of difficultly, but the part of our service learning experience I found the most challenging was starting out. Because we started from the bottom up, the beginning was hard in terms of finding information about our topic. Our group also had trouble narrowing down our topic because there was a lot of information about the general LGBTQ community. However, it was a lot harder to find information about LGBTQ youth. The project also had many aspects that were rewarding. Helping others always has a rewarding aspect to it, but the part of the project that was the most rewarding for me was knowing that by presenting, and learning about the organization, I was able to spread the word, and have more people become aware of GLSEN, and the extraordinary work they do. Finally, in terms of staying engaged with GLSEN, because they are such a big organization that runs many events, there isn’t a lot I can do to stay personally in contact. However, they run many events in New York City, which I can participate in, and I can also simply spread the word. Even by telling others about GLSEN, I am able to help others who might find GLSEN a resource if they feel like they have no where to go.
Over the course of the school year the ninth grade participated in the Youth Philanthropy Initiative Project where groups were tasked to find a New York City based social issue and compete for a $5,000 grant. My group focused solely on the topic of police misconduct due to both the shared belief in social justice and how it is an extremely prominent issue in today’s society. Throughout the project some of the skills I developed and worked hard on were my public speaking skills. After our group compiled our online research with the information from our interview at our non profit organization, The Innocence Project, we began putting together a cohesive presentation. Even though it was a challenging factor, the hardest part was presenting it in front of seventy five to ninety people. Once the script was done I would practice trying to make my words convincing. I put emphasize on specific words to make it sound empowering. Moreover, I spoke in a less formal way to the audience to make it feel less scripted. I overcame my long term fear of stage fright and constant fidgeting. I was overjoyed that my hard work payed off as my group was chosen for the $5,000 grant. In the end, not only did I see the project as a great way to spread awareness of the subject, but It was a personal achievement for me.
On Saturday December 13th I marched in the Millions March NYC and hosted a meeting of activists and organizers at my house. My family knows Michael Skolnik, a member of the board of advisors of Justice League NYC, and a modern day civil rights leader. Since I live near Washington Square Park, the start of the march, he asked my family if we would host a meeting of organizers before the march. At the meeting I met many activists and journalists marching or reporting in the march. There were also some family members of the victims of police shootings or racially connected murders. I learned the story of Emmett Till, a black teenager tortured for reportedly flirting with a white woman in the 50s, from his cousin who came to New York to march. Emmett Till’s murder was shown to the whole country and inspired leaders of the civil rights movement like Rosa Parks. Ron Davis, the father of Jordan Davis, who was shot dead in Florida by a man in an argument over loud music, also came to New York.
Before leaving my house I could already see huge crouds of marchers gathering in Washington Square park from my window. When I got there I realized that what I had seen had been only a small fraction of the crouds assembled there. At least half of the entire park was already filled up with marchers, more were coming every second and the marchers were moving incredibly slowly out of the park. The organizers estimated that there were 30,000 marchers. The sound was also deafening, chants moved down the march slowly towards the back and new one’s started frequently. Some common chants were, “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” as well as, “If I can’t breathe, shut it down. If You can’t breathe, shut it down. If Eric garner can’t breath…” These chants were call out back and forth with one person shouting out the first line and other marchers responding. I stayed in the park for 30 or 45 minutes before I got to fifth avenue. On fifth avenue the pace increased and I was able to look around at banners and signs held up by marchers better. Many banners had the phrase black lives matter, many also had lists of victims of police shootings and one person I saw held up an upside down american flag.
I marched for 5 hours, stopping once to get a snack with the group of people I had been with since we left my house, and returning to the front of the march. At the front of the march protesters held up panels that together depicted Eric Garner’s eyes. The march was one of the first times I had ever protested in a march to support civil rights and I am glad I was able to stand up to support civil rights and be able to meet many organizers of the march.