At a time when civil rights are being vigorously discussed in presidential debates and corner coffee shops, hundreds of Maine schoolchildren learn about civil rights through an almost 20-year-old program sponsored by the Maine Office of the Attorney General.

The Civil Rights Team Project, now in over 160 schools, consists of extracurricular clubs where students can discuss bias based on race, color, national origin and ancestry, religion, physical and mental disabilities, gender, and sexual orientation. Each team has an adviser and does a group project aimed at addressing bias, from a poster campaign in the school hallway to a theater skit or mentoring program with younger students.

And while the project is meant to be about education, the tenor of the times – when civil rights issues are leading many Americans into decidedly uncivil discourse – can tilt the groups or their members toward direct action.

“I think what happens in the world of politics inevitably influences what we see happening in our school communities,” said Brandon Baldwin, who manages the program for the Attorney General’s Office. This month alone several more schools contacted Baldwin about starting new teams.

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine honored high school students from South Portland and Lewiston for their efforts to preserve constitutional rights. While their actions were not on behalf of civil rights teams, the students honored were all members of their school’s civil rights team.

In South Portland, the students lobbied school officials for months to let them inform students that saying the Pledge of Allegiance is optional under state and federal law. Their effort stirred community opposition and drew national attention, eventually resulting in a new procedure for the school’s daily morning ritual.

In Lewiston, four students successfully fought for their right to hang a #BlackLivesMatter poster at Lewiston High School in the wake of racially charged riots and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. They also helped to lead a protest march to bring attention to racial injustice and police brutality.

‘A SAFE SPACE TO TALK’

English teacher Kellie Sanborn has seen the civil rights team from both sides – she was a member of her team at Gray-New Gloucester High School, and today she is the adviser to a new team at Messalonskee High School in Oakland.

“It’s really true that this is a more important time than ever to have them,” Sanborn said. “Schools need civil rights teams because students need a place to talk about these issues. Oftentimes it’s hard to find a safe space to talk.”

At Riverton Elementary School in Portland, team co-leader Teddy Valencia found out recently she was playing it too safe with her young team members.

Trying to use analogies for race, religion and gender differences, Valencia said she would talk about people wearing different-colored socks or having different-colored eyes – and how it wasn’t right to discriminate based on those things.

“I was tiptoeing around everything,” said Valencia.

Then those 9- and 10-year-old students woke her up. They’d been hearing that some people were saying that Muslims were terrorists and that they shouldn’t be allowed in the country.

“I heard that Muslims had to get out. I was really scared,” said 10-year-old Sasha Raouf, a Muslim girl born in Iraq who moved to Syria before fleeing the violence there to come to Maine. Across the room, her classmate Ahmed Almashaheel had a similar story.

He, too, is from Iraq and remembers the war they fled. “Sometimes people kill other people for no reason,” he said. “We just moved.”

Now the team is talking about how in America, you can’t discriminate against someone because of his religion or skin color, even if that’s what some people are saying.

Valencia said she was “blown away” by their insistence on talking bluntly about sensitive topics. Without the civil rights team, those students would have just carried their doubts and fears around. The team, she said, gives them a place to talk and learn about their rights.

The Civil Rights Team Project is the only state attorney general-sponsored program of its kind in the nation, Baldwin said. It was launched as a pilot project with 18 schools in 1996 as an outgrowth of the Maine Civil Rights Act. Many of the initial violations of the Maine Civil Rights Act, which protects people from threats, property damage, and violence when motivated by bias, involved young people and were happening in schools, officials said.

The Civil Rights Team Project was created to target the young people and school communities, and focuses on changing school culture and climate to prevent discriminatory behavior.

Baldwin emphasized that it is not an anti-bullying program.

“We have seen teams really engage in trying to create institutional change in their schools, not just deal with issues of student behavior or what happens in the hallways,” he said.

Riverton Civil Rights Team members including McKenzie Siton (with book) read to first-graders.  John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Riverton Civil Rights Team members including McKenzie Siton (with book) read to first-graders.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer


RIVERTON TEAMS SPECIALIZE

Rachel Healy of the Maine ACLU has done some work with the students and organizers of the Civil Rights Team Project. Teaching young people about civil rights can be eye-opening, and issues that don’t get attention in the classroom can be covered.

“The conversations that happen are so fascinating,” Healy said. “(Students) really are starting to form those opinions (on civil rights) and at least arming them with the ability to think critically about these rights will send them out into the world as a more informed citizenry, and that’s crucial.”

At Riverton, there are so many team members, they have broken into multiple teams. One is a theater group that plans an anti-discrimination skit. Another is a culture club that researches a particular country, then cooks native food for a meal.

Fourth-grader Nasra Omar is part of the mentoring group. On a recent school day, she was reading “The Family Book” to a group of first-graders, answering questions about how all different kinds of families are equal, even if they look different – with lots of kids, or adopted children, or different skin colors. One boy wanted to know about his dog.

“Well, even if he’s an animal, he’s still part of your family, right?” Omar said.

It’s an example of how the team members can pass on their knowledge to others in the school community, leaders say.

“Everyone agrees students should feel welcomed and respected, but often what we see is (that) our schools may have difficulty identifying what’s happening, or have difficulty figuring out how to address those issues and talk about them,” Baldwin said. “We can help.”

And while the team members can benefit from the group, the idea is to have them reach outward into the school and larger community.

“We want them to be active and visible,” Baldwin said. “And in the process of being allies and advocates within the school, we think that’s a powerful process for members of the team. … This inevitably changes them. It’s a powerful experience.”