AUGUSTA, Maine — The drumbeat sounded and students jumped to their feet. They danced in lines, circles and pairs as Jordan Benissan of Waterville led his troupe of young drummers in songs from his native Togolese Republic in West Africa.
The Augusta Civic Center felt and sounded more like a dance party Monday afternoon than a conference about the serious business of civil rights. That was partly the point, according to Thomas Harnett, who heads the school-based Civil Rights Team Project sponsored by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
“It’s a celebration at the end of the school year to thank them and to honor all their good work,” he said.
More than 1,000 students representing 70 schools from around the state attended the event. The conference featured workshops that looked at prejudice, genocide, gender roles and stereotypes. Presenters used humor, music, mime and archaeology to illustrate the differences and commonalities of Homo sapiens.
It was the first time in two years that the conference has been held. It was canceled last year due to budget cuts, according to Harnett.
Robbie Keane and Kyle Cote, both 15 and members of the civil rights team at Old Town High School, agreed they found comfort and strength in spending the day at the event with so many students who are working toward the same goal in so many different communities.
“Getting all these kids young and old together is great,” Keane said. “We all believe individually that there should be no stereotyping, no name-calling, no racism, but it feels so much stronger here.”
Colleen Fitzgerald, the faculty adviser for the Old Town High School team, called students on civil rights teams “incredibly brave” in a press release issued by the Attorney General’s Office after the conference concluded.
“The students on our [team] are passionate and committed to creating a school where everyone feels safe, even though they are sometimes criticized by their peers for daring to speak up when an injustice is done,” she said. “The students simply ask everyone to think before they speak and do everything they can to be respectful of the rights of others to be emotionally and physically safe at school and in the community.”
Fifteen members of the Bangor High School team, organized for the first time last fall, attended the conference. The team displayed in Augusta a “secrets banner” gathered from students throughout the school. Topics ranged from speeding tickets they hadn’t told their parents about to surreptitious love to darker secrets. One of the anonymous statements said, “I bleed to know I’m alive.”
“The banner lets students know they’re not alone,” Stephanie LaPlante, the adviser for the Bangor High team, said. “It sends the message that no matter how bad your secret is, another might share it or have the same secret.”
Attorney General Janet Mills opened the conference by highlighting some of the projects teams have worked on in their schools over the past year. She praised the group at Piscataquis County Middle School for encouraging community leaders and students to sign pledges to end prejudice, and lauded the team at the Etna-Dixmont School for its “Not in Our School” campaign to end name calling.
“We in this room are pledged to always focus on the positive,” Mills told the students. “Hate mongering, rumor, stereotyping, trash talk — that stuff is all around us — in the media, in online commentaries, in blogs and in bathroom graffiti. We can and will speak up against it.”