Human and civil rights, from a seventh grader's perspective

By Margaret O’Hara

Alex Stearns carried the diorama on stage.

It depicted a yellow, two-story building with dark green accents. Alex, 13, held up the model, allowing Monte del Sol Charter School’s seventh grade class to take a look.

The life-sized version of the building stands in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Stearns explained to the room full of students. Now a museum, it commemorates the Ponce Massacre in 1937 when 19 people died and more than 100 were injured after police opened fire on a demonstration calling for Puerto Rican independence from its status as a U.S. territory.

Alex, who is Puerto Rican, chose to memorialize that piece of history in the diorama — and share it with the whole grade.

“Civil rights for me means equality, peace and justice,” Alex said in an interview. “It’s really important for other people to stand up for people who don’t have the opportunity to stand up or they are silenced.”

That was the theme of the day Wednesday for Monte del Sol’s seventh graders as they attended the school’s annual civil rights gathering.

The goal is the event will offer students a better understanding of what civil rights are and how they connect to everyone — including seventh graders in Santa Fe — said Wendy Leighton, one of the school’s founding teachers.

“I hope they felt part of something, that they felt inspired and like they want to get involved with some kind of cause,” she said.

At Monte del Sol, a state-chartered school with about 350 students in grades seven through 12, diversity and community-mindedness are interspersed within core curricula. Leighton’s seventh-grade history class, for instance, is dedicated to Native American history, exploring the cultures indigenous to the Americas before and after colonization.

It’s important students learn the skills necessary to advocate for themselves and for their peers, Leighton said, “because they’re probably going to need them.”

Students investigated well-known activists and events, creating artwork in honor of former first lady Michelle Obama and actor and activist George Takei, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta and the late actor and activist Christopher Reeve during advisory periods.

They presented their findings — with some help from teachers — during Wednesday’s gathering.

Activism can result in society-wide advancements, science teacher Molly Mackinnon told students during Wednesday’s events. She read students the first 10 principles enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights — written in the aftermath of World War II — as an example.

But respecting civil rights doesn’t have to be a big thing, Mackinnon added.

“The smallest act is a huge act that reverberates across your friends and the school and out into the world,” she said.

Alex and fellow seventh grader Willow Beeman said they hope their peers hear that message as a reminder to respect one another, despite differences.

“It’s unfair how we treat people — just for being different or for having different religions or being a different race or expressing themselves differently,” Willow said.

“It’s really important to me that we take that.”