Civil Rights Team members Alyssa Henderson, left, Ruby Colwell and Kayla Bailey gather Thursday at Gardiner Area High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

GARDINER — Ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Ruby Colwell recited a quote her grandmother always told her.

“The right wing and the left wing are part of the same bird,” she said.

Colwell, a ninth-grader at Gardiner Area High School, said the quote is especially meaningful this year.

“We all have to realize that I’m human, you’re human, we are all human, and that’s what brings us together,” she said. “We are all in the same world and working towards the same thing. That’s what MLK and Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood for.”

As a first-year student on the school’s Civil Rights Team, Colwell has taken action ahead of MLK Jr. Day and decided, along with her teammates, to put a video together to celebrate the day. The team did the same following the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States.

The students on the Gardiner Civil Rights Team said the video they put together for the federal holiday focuses on the equality for which Martin Luther King Jr. stood. Team members, students and teachers at the school participated in the video.

Those who participated in the project were instructed to send a 30-second or one-minute video to Colwell. Submissions included drawings, a few words or any other way participants chose to express themselves.

Teacher Christina Benedict is the adviser for the Civil Rights Team at Gardiner Area High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

One team member, senior Maggie Barron, wrote a poem about what MLK Jr. means to her.

“This year’s MLK Day is a big event,” Barron said. “It’s important to keep in mind the people that began (the fight for civil rights), like MLK, Malcolm X and Angela Davis, who gave their lives to the cause and started this. Civil rights wouldn’t have happened without them, and they are an important connection to make.”

The Civil Rights Team — about 15 members at Gardiner Area High School — is part of a statewide program. One team rule stipulates members are not to talk about politics or show bias, and everyone is to be heard.

“We want to make sure everyone is included,” senior Kayla Bailey said. “We don’t want to take on one side or think that we are a political group or that we are trying to break anyone else down. The whole point is to be inclusive and make sure they feel safe and welcome.”

As a first-year member of the team, ninth-grader Alyssa Henderson, who describes herself as shy, said it has been a way to make friends and find her voice.

Henderson talked about the impact MLK Jr. had on her, admitting a few days before video submissions were due she did not know what she wanted to create or say.

“He stood for equality and peace and justice, and those are all of the things that I believe in,” Henderson said. “I think that if he didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be sitting here with all of you here today.”

In Maine School Administrative District 54, Skowhegan Area High School’s Civil Rights Team chose to focus on the school’s climate; specifically, getting the community familiar with using students’ preferred pronouns.

“The team came ready to tackle this issue by making us aware that our school has a need to hold a space, be educated and held responsible for respecting and using personal pronouns requested by people in our school community,” said Donna Irish, one of the teachers who works with the team.

When students on the team come with a need, Irish said, they tend to shift the focus of the team to that. The team has only been able to meet about five times this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To educate the school community on preferred pronouns, team members were planning to create a slideshow to present to staff members. Students are also writing about it in the school newspaper. They are calling it the “Personal Pronoun Project.”

Cony Middle and High School’s Civil Rights Team is also creating a slideshow on Martin Luther King Jr. and some of the Black people who had an impact on the country over the past year.

Teacher April Fenton, who leads the team’s high school section, said Kamala Harris; Noah Harris, the first Black student elected student body president at Harvard University; and Bianca Smith, the first Black woman to serve as a professional baseball coach, were among those included in the presentation.

“We usually do something every MLK Day,” Fenton said. “They talked a lot about Black Lives Matter and what’s going on in the news. With MLK, he paved the way, and that’s how we see it. There are others, of course, but this is his day, and instead of the regular role of ‘this is what MLK did,’ we wanted to show his path.”

In the past, Cony had a larger celebration of MLK Jr., but because of remote learning, that was not possible this year.

Fenton said this MLK Day is close to her heart and has her thinking of her family.

“Maine isn’t as white as it used to be, and there is a lot of racism,” she said. “I don’t think that people recognize it, and I’ve always thought that Maine never really had any Black people that could call them out and feel safe. I think with education and with us becoming more diverse, I hope that we can make a difference.”

Cony Middle and High School plans to play the slideshow during the first period of the day to the whole student body.

At Gardiner, Colwell was planning to have the video finished for Monday’s holiday and show it throughout the school. She said it was inspiring to hear what others said about MLK Jr., and that Maggie Barron’s poem brought her to tears.

“We are the future and we will change the world some day,” Colwell said. “We will fix what’s broken and we can grow up to be anything. We are just one little team in the town of Gardiner, but we are still making a difference for the state of Maine.”

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