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(L to R) Jennifer Martel, Kaitlyn Hayes, Marcus Louko, Ellie Sowles, Abby Blin.

Members of Colchester High School’s Social Justice Alliance (SJA) cozy up in a circle of plastic chairs, their backpacks, water bottles and crocs splayed around the room. Student members of the new club giggle and chat quietly, checking in about classes, mental health and mutual friends. For many in the group, SJA is a safe space to be themselves and as the club gets more underway, they hope to expand this safe space to make all students feel equal and empowered.

“I personally have struggled a lot with frustration at the world around me and being like, ‘I want to do something about it but I just don’t feel like I have a voice to do that.’ This helps me get that voice,” said junior Kaitlyn Hayes.

CHS teachers Leslie Noble and Jessica Murphy began the club at the beginning of the 2019 school year but were determined to make it student-led. They reached out to students via email and left the rest in their hands.

Much of the club is dedicated to discussing issues students see in their environment, listening to members’ personal experiences and working on action plans. Specific areas students focus on include public outreach, education and research, social media and school involvement.

Hayes noted how difficult it can be as a young person to find in-roads to the social justice movement. Before joining SJA, she recalled wanting to go to protests and be more active, but not having the means or information. She also didn’t want to do it alone.

“This is one of those ways where we can get that opportunity,” said Hayes. “Us, as students, to put ourselves out there and be a part of that group that wants to change something—it feels really good.”

Student member Ellie Sowles agreed, noting how little she knew about social justice but her strong desire to learn. Since joining, Sowles considers SJA a platform for student voices.

“Now that we have voices, we can share that with others,” she said. “It’s about encouraging people to use their voices, to give them a microphone for their voice and to educate people. Show people what it’s all about.”

This push towards self-advocacy is also important to the students. Creating safe spaces for kids to feel empowered is part of that fight.

“Hopefully we can make the whole school as much of a safe space as we can, to truly be yourself,” said SJA member Abby Blin. “I have things that make me different from other people, some I haven’t shared with everyone. But [this is] a safe space where everyone accepts who I am. That’s really empowering. When I can’t be myself in other places, it’s so freeing to be myself in a safe space.”

One of the projects students have already tackled this year landed on Oct. 11—National Coming Out Day. SJA made ribbons for allies of the LGBTQ+ community to wear during school in a show of support. The day also coincided with a school spirit day, promoting celebration to another level.

“It was so great. Almost every single teacher was wearing purple,” recalled SJA member Jennifer Martel. On the rainbow Pride flag, the color purple represents spirit.

Blin also remarked the ribbons seemed to transcend high school cliques.

“There’s a lot of groups in high school, that’s just the way it is,” Blin said. “I know one of my goals is to have other people talk to each other that they wouldn’t normally.”

SJA members have also attended school-sponsored talks from speakers regarding social justice.

Many members attended a talk given by John Lewis, a congressional representative of Georgia and one of the “Big Six” leaders in the Civil Rights Movement who helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963. Students also heard a talk from Alex Gino, a gender-queer children’s book author whose first novel won the 2016 Stonewall Book Award.

“Hatred stems from ignorance,” Martel said. “So just explaining things to people makes it so much easier for them to accept it.”

“This group is still very new, but the fact that we’ve been able to have stuff in action and people follow along with it, support it and feel empowered by it,” said Blin. “I’m looking forward to doing a lot more.”

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