Editor’s note: This is the first story of our Young Voices Cleveland series.
Behind each essay written by finalists in the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Stop the Hate contest is an insightful and articulate student, bravely sharing painful experiences they often worked to grow past.
“Growing up black in an upper class white private school is a truly unique experience,” writes Hawken School junior Tadj Adams in his essay. “So when I think about my own role in fighting racism, I believe I have a unique perspective to offer.”
He continues, “The more I have thought about it, the more I have realized that simply being black in America is an opportunity to fight the web of racism.”
Adams says he tries to be an advocate for black men stereotyped as being “ill-tempered, aggressive and quick to engage in mindless violence.” Or for himself, “Smart for a black boy.” And his sister, “Pretty for a black girl.” Things “white lips” have said to him countless times.
This essay wasn’t the only piece to address race in this year’s contest. Gilmour Academy senior John Kunzo III shared a similar experience of being biracial in a prestigious private school. Themes on race and fighting back against racial or religious stereotypes, bullying, gender discrimination and sexism are popular subjects in these pieces.
Orange High School junior Hannah Shuffer, who won first place in this year’s contest, wrote beautifully about her brother, who lives with cerebral palsy.
“Sounds of pure happiness rise from the depths of his belly and caress my ears, he gleefully shakes his rattle toy as if applauding the orchestra on the CD, he wiggles so passionately that his wheelchair nearly falls apart,” Shuffer writes, wanting to humanize her brother for those who mock or stare at him. “He is my older brother, Nathan. I love him very much.”
She continues, “Nathan was born with a severe form of cerebral palsy, which means that he cannot walk, talk or see. I see none of this. I only know the older brother who loves classical music and can sleep in nearly any situation.”
Another writer addressed a deeply personal topic. Padua Franciscan High School senior Peyton Lunder wrote of her harrowing ordeal: “I have experienced abuse and injustice at the hands of someone who was supposed to protect me from them. From the time I was 3 until I was 12, I was sexually and mentally abused by my father.”
After she told her mother what was happening, Lunder was quickly moved to a different school, where she remembers feeling lonely. That is, until she went to a summer program with girls her own age, where she learned to open up and trust.
“I spent years hiding behind the epidemic of silence,” she shares. Now, she plans to keep using her voice in a career in marketing and journalism, and to help others.
In 10 years, the contest has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to 30,000 students using their voices to create a kinder, more tolerant world.
These essays aren’t just disconnected pieces shedding light on individual experiences. In many ways, they are more than just stories of injustices experienced or witnessed; they are pledges to be an active part of change, as well as a call to action for others, including peers and adults, too.
Jennifer Williams, a seventh-grader at Old Trail Elementary – like other students – was moved to action by the relentless and often mean-spirited 2016 election. In response, she created a school discussion group: Making A Difference Inspiring Change.
“When I was younger, I always knew that I wanted to spread kindness, joy and happiness, but since I was ignorant and unaware of the world around me, I was stuck and continued to live my sheltered life,” Williams writes, acknowledging the difference between wanting change and actually making it happen.
She continues, “However, after the past election, I began to see what was happening in the world and the big impact it was making. I have started to understand everything that I have seen on the news and how my generation is the future; we have to fight for the world’s future.”
Locally and nationally, we see students fighting to form school clubs and taking political stances against school shootings. Their compelling speeches – much like these essays – have surprised many not expecting young people to be so moving and eloquent. The students, unfortunately, have also been opened up to attacks – a difficult situation to watch and an important reminder that all of this promise is a call to adults to continue being role models and guiding these young people to reach their potential.
Like Cleveland Heights High School junior Schuyler Radivoyevitch says, “It is our job to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.”