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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Teens Find Political Voice At ACLU Summer Justice Institute

Emily Files
About 30 Milwaukee-area students participated in the ACLU of Wisconsin's Summer Justice Institute this July. They are pictured in an art classroom at UWM, where they were learning about block printing and screen printing.

Alexandra Moreno is an incoming junior at Carmen High School of Science and Technology in Milwaukee. She wants to be a lawyer. But she’s not waiting until she earns that degree to speak out about an issue that's important to her – immigrant rights.  

“Right now, we’re actually planning a march to advocate for people that are at the border,” Moreno says. "Immigration rights is something to follow through [on] here because our country is a melting pot."

Moreno is one of about 30 high schoolers from Milwaukee and surrounding suburbs participating in the third annual ACLU of Wisconsin Summer Justice Institute, hosted at Marquette University.

“I was using this program as an experience to learn a little more about social justice and basically open up my boundaries as a leader,” says Moreno. “Because I feel like as a leader, I can be really reserved with people I don’t know.”

The free, two-week program is aimed at cultivating Wisconsin's next generation of social justice advocates. 

“The goal is to give them organizing skills," says ACLU of Wisconsin youth organizer Marissa Ocampo. "So that when something happens in their schools or in their communities...they have those tools, they have those skills, they have something to draw upon so that they can get to work if they want to."  

Through conversations with elected officials, the students are learning about local and statewide power structures. Those civics lessons are mixed in with discussions about issues like racism and women’s rights and workshops on community organizing.

The ACLU is officially nonpartisan, but it is associated with progressive, liberal causes. Ocampo says some parents have questions about what exactly their kids will be learning. But in her experience, those discussions have been positive.

“Usually that kind of conversation gets parents excited,” Ocampo says. “Especially when they hear about the leadership qualities that their children will learn.”

Students say even though they're too young to vote, this experience has made them feel empowered to affect change in other ways. Michael Orlowski, a student at Wauwatosa West, thinks elected leaders don't take young voices seriously. 

“They constantly tell us that we don’t have a say or don’t have any stake in what we’re trying to change. But this institute really instills this idea in our mind that we have strong power and it’s even stronger if we use it collectively,” he says.

Orlowski says he's passionate about economic justice, which he first became interested in after listening to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

“If you look at the crises we’re facing in America, a lot of it is rooted in corporation greed,” Orlowski says. “And people not being able to open up their arms to people who don’t look like them or pray like them.”

Other students said they want to become more active on issues like LGBTQ rights, climate change and police brutality.

Recent Shorewood graduate Azariah Bryant says the Summer Justice Institute has given her more confidence to stand up for herself. She is planning to study computer engineering -- a field dominated by men. 

“I feel like if I encounter any sexism or pushback from any peers of mine I will be ready to combat that and defend myself,” Bryant says.

This level of youth outreach isn't common to every ACLU chapter, according to Emilio De Torre. He is the director of community engagement with the Wisconsin ACLU.

“We recognized years ago that if you don’t teach the youngest individuals in the community how to access power, then they will grow up to be uninformed adults,” De Torre says.

The Summer Justice Institute teaches students how to achieve change from the ground up. But some of the teenagers may go on to seek more official positions of power. De Torre points out that a handful of Milwaukee’s current state legislators are alumni of ACLU youth programs.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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