In the post-Columbine era, no spark is considered too trivial to ignore the wildfire it might ignite: A small gathering of African-American high school students who overhear a racial slur from a white student. Or a high school student who hears the word “faggot” used in casual conversation 25 times during a typical day. Or a student with a Jewish star on her backpack at whom a fellow student jokingly shouts from a passing car, “I’m going to kill you.”
The reasons are as varied as the students themselves, but what has united them is a willingness to confront such intolerance head-on among their peers. They are members of MYAN, the Montana Youth Action Network, a newly formed statewide human rights group designed for and led by youths to promote diversity, human rights, democracy, equality and justice. MYAN, a project of the Montana Human Rights Network, is Montana’s first statewide youth activist organization and the first of its kind in the nation.
“You notice all around you all the time the oppression played out in such subtle ways,” says 16-year-old Michael Parrish, a sophomore at Hellgate High School who serves on MYAN’s statewide board of directors. Parrish says that one of their biggest challenges will be to gain recognition as a legitimate organization like any other activist group.
“The impression of youth especially is that we’re not totally whole human beings,” says Parrish. “Everything from parental consent laws to the way we’re treated on the street, where people won’t even look teenagers in the eye.”
MYAN, which also has chapters in Helena, Bozeman, Anaconda and Polson, will help teens build local human rights networks, teach them how to become human rights advocates and create educational material in a voice and style that their peers will take to heart.
“I think these groups are definitely needed to provide a safe haven for people who are experiencing prejudice, and to show people that this stuff is not OK,” says 14-year-old MYAN activist Ledah Wilcox. She says that although the school district offers some diversity training, many students—and occasionally some faculty—don’t take it seriously because “they’re not into the warm and fuzzy thing.”
Thus far, the Missoula MYAN chapter (which is independent of the school district) consists of students only from Hellgate High School, but Parrish expects they’ll recruit others from Big Sky and Sentinel as well. Their first major event is Thursday, May 18, when MYAN hosts Dr. James Sauceda, director of Multicultural Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Sauceda will perform an original multimedia piece, “Buried Mirrors: Reflections and Resurrections,” at the UM Masquer Theatre.