Avalon Levey's "enough" moment came during her American history class last year at Maplewood's Mounds Park Academy. During a one-day Holocaust seminar, Levey became "extremely emotional." Looking around, though, she noticed that most of her classmates "were not even listening." Bothered, she approached a friend who confessed: "It was too horrible, so I tuned out."
Levey, 18, is not about to tune out, even when faced with world-sized horrors. On Tuesday, she presented opening remarks at a conference at William Mitchell College of Law titled, "Child Soldiers and Bullying: Taking a Stand Against Genocide and Hate." The three-day conference is sponsored by the college's Summer Institute for High School Students and World Without Genocide. It has brought together 18 high school students from Rochester to Robbinsdale, St. Paul and Minneapolis, all trading late-summer repose for 12-hour days packed with leadership and legal training, and coaching on how to advocate for a bullied classmate, or an entire group being dehumanized by a powerful elite.
"We speak at high schools, do exhibits and show films, but to have a three-day experience for young people, I think, is unique in the country," said Ellen Kennedy, founder of the nonprofit World Without Genocide.
Kennedy calls these students "the best of youth today. Their engagement will be powerful and profound."
Many of the participants already have tested the waters of grass-roots activism, through school anti-violence programs and the Model United Nations, or by volunteering at Feed My Starving Children and Habitat for Humanity.
Isaac Marshall, 18, remembers his father's involvement on the school board years ago on behalf of minority families not being treated well. His mother is a longtime community activist. "I have a lot of friends in the Hmong and Somali community," said Marshall, a recent graduate of Mounds Park Academy. "We're lucky they're here, but we're not lucky because those people had to leave their homes for us to have a wake-up call."
Sixteen-year-old Jeron Mariani, of St. Paul Academy, is here, in part, because of concern about cyber-bullying. "It's a prevalent issue right now." Mai Chai Lor, 17, of Cooper High School, brings a unique perspective. Her mother was a child soldier in Thailand. "It's very important that I inform others about issues in Thailand," said Lor, who is heading to Iowa's Buena Vista University on a four-year leadership scholarship.
The conference is the brainchild of University of Minnesota graduate Rachel Beecroft, 21, who heard Kennedy speak last fall and "it just clicked," Beecroft said. By 8 the next morning, she and Kennedy were pulling together this conference's logistics and a powerful lineup of speakers, including Carl Wilkens, an American rescuer during the Rwandan genocide, where nearly 100,000 children were orphaned, and Jamie Nabozny, who won a landmark lawsuit against school administrators in Ashland, Wis., after enduring brutal bullying for being gay.
Beecroft gets no whiplash from placing "genocide" and "bullying" in the same conference title. "Ultimately, both issues come down to hate," she said. "You can't be who you are. It's telling another person, 'You're inferior.'"
Beecroft, who studied human rights in Tanzania last summer, begins a four-month internship in world development in India this fall, before traveling to Rwanda, Nigeria and Southeast Asia.
Levey, who was on the conference planning committee, will no doubt take her passion and training to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she'll study international affairs this fall. After her "enough" moment in class, she decided to take action. With Kennedy's help, she designed a full-year genocide education program at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul.
During the first semester, seven students in grades eight through 12 met with Holocaust survivors weekly, "to develop a relationship," Levey said. "You can't tune out something sitting in front of you." During the second semester, the students met a 22-year-old survivor of the Bosnian genocide who recently graduated from Macalester College, "and who looks just like us," Levey said.
"My dad has always just been very adamant that all people are people," said Levey, who co-authored an anti-bullying bill at the state level, and was president of her school's gay-straight alliance.
Beecroft is similarly driven. "What motivates me is thinking about individual people who are suffering," Beecroft said. "Kids in Africa or kids in our community. I like to think that, if there was any human rights atrocity here, someone, somewhere would be working to stop it."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 email@example.com