The youth activism that is popping up all over the country has trickled its way into rural Turlock, where a group of students at Mountain View Middle School are taking it upon themselves to fight discrimination – even if it means rubbing a few people the wrong way.
Racism, religious discrimination, wealth inequality and homophobia were just a few of the topics that junior high students within Chatom Union School District brought up during a speech event at MVMS last year, and the conversations started that day sparked the creation of the school’s first-ever student-organized club, the Social Justice Club.
According to club advisor Lisa Bos-Pinero, who teaches Language Arts and United States History at MVMS, when she noticed the subject matter of her students’ speeches, she thought perhaps they would like to start a club related to those topics. When she asked, 40 out of the 60 students showed interest in starting a club meant to combat discrimination, she said.
“We already have a fabulous school, but the kids are aware of some things that we don’t have to face as adults,” Bos-Pinero said. “During those speeches they spoke about race and religion and poor people, and a student even came out and said he was gay. That is not something that’s ever been talked about at our school.”
Though the group was formed during last school year, this year is really the first time the Social Justice Club has taken steps to spread the message of inclusivity throughout campus, Bos-Pinero added. To promote their ideas and spread awareness about their club, they came up with a special week in February with dedicated days to celebrate diversity and discourage discrimination.
Upon returning from the long President’s Day Weekend, it was the club’s hope that on Tuesday students would celebrate “Equal respect for all,” with a focus on antibullying, on Wednesday observe “Equality for men and women,” on Thursday pay “Equal respect for all races and religions” and on Friday focus on “Equal respect for all gender preferences.”
The “Celebrating Diversity Week” was approved by MVMS principal Steve Lewis, Bos-Pinero said, but when other parents got wind of the plan, concerns arose. Wanting more information, parents requested that a flyer be sent home detailing each day. The club obliged, but soon after the informational flyer was sent out, Lewis gathered the group for a meeting.
“The principal called all of the Social Justice Club into a room and he told us that the Board wasn’t comfortable with our days and we couldn’t do it,” Bos-Pinero said.
Club secretary and seventh grader Amal Khanshali said that some members were in tears after the meeting.
“This club means so much and even though people don’t really talk about it, it does happen and it will continue to happen if we don’t teach people not to accept it,” she said.
After the CUSD Board of Trustees cancelled the planned week of diversity celebration, the Social Justice Club once again met with Lewis, where they developed a mission statement and were encouraged by the principal to present their ideas to the Board in the hopes that it could help them change their minds.
All of this is uncharted territory for the District, said Bos-Pinero, as the club is the first one to be organized by students in the school’s history.
At Tuesday night’s CUSD Board meeting, Khanshali and other club members did present to the trustees, sharing why social justice is important to them and touching on topics like feminism, bullying and homosexuality.
“I know there are a lot of people that are not open to this, but we’re saying to accept people, and respect them. You might not agree with them, but we’re not teaching people how to be gay and we’re not teaching people that girls are better than boys,” Khanshali said. “We’re teaching people to accept people for who they are and to respect them. Believe it or not, this can change lives.”
Eighth grader Tristan Daniel shared with the Board his testimony of discovering he is gay, sharing intimate details like the problems it has caused in his relationship with his parents as well as how he is treated at school.
“I, Tristan Eli Daniel, am gay, and I have found my place with the Social Justice Club,” he said. “All we are trying to do with this club is help people, help others like me and others who are bullied.”
Although their week of activities meant to celebrate diversity and inclusivity was cancelled by the Board, the club has started providing a “Fun Friday” for fellow students, bringing music and hula hoops out to spread positivity amongst classmates.
“Our goal is really to make the school more open and inclusive, and if we have to do it in more subtle ways first then we can start there,” Bos-Pinero said.
But, she believes the students’ presentation to Board members this week was a step in the right direction.
“They welcomed us tonight. We got to speak and we love all of our school district...but I want all the students to feel accepted and respected, so if I have to get uncomfortable myself that’s what we’re going to do,” she said.
Khanshali believes it’s only a matter of time before the Social Justice Club becomes a mainstay on campus.
“We’ve planted a seed and now we’re waiting for it to grow.”