Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler and council members celebrated Highland Park’s “ROOTS” at the November Council meeting – without ever referring to anyone’s ancestry. Council honored the five Highland Park High School students who participated in the ROOTS Project Inc., a non-profit organization, whose mission is to inspire individuals to catalyze social change by challenging injustice and inequity. ROOTS is an acronym for Rising Over Oppression Through Solidarity.
Six months ago, the mayor, superintendent, principal, teachers and community members hosted a fundraiser that enabled senior Olyvia Ruizz, senior Piney Arp, junior Patricia McDaniel, sophomore Amiri Tulloch, and sophomore Kyle Hagin to attend a ROOTS camp program, known as YouthROOTS that focused on inclusion and solidarity. They came back a week later inspired and with ideas and plans for changing their community for the better. Project YouthROOTS is a weeklong summer program for high school students entering grades 10 through 12. According to YouthROOTS literature, this is a “life-changing journey for participants who will cultivate self-esteem, learn how to engage in global citizenship, and develop strategies to overcome challenges from bias, bullying and oppression. Students will create a growth plan to catalyze change at both a personal and community level.”
Twenty-four additional high-school students from five other New Jersey schools joined the Highland Park delegation, and the group assembled in Johnsonburg, New Jersey for the five-day long camp.
At the camp, the students learned and engaged in relevant societal topics often ignored by curriculum: institutional racism, micro-aggressions, stereotyping/labels, gender roles and expression. The students immersed themselves in these topics through riveting, interactive, and often emotional activities throughout the week; activities that challenged students to share their life stories while encouraging them to understand the experiences and perspectives of the other participants.
The camp also made an impact on the students from a social standpoint. The staff enforced a no technology policy during the camp and stressed the development of undistracted interpersonal communication and conversations. Despite the initial reluctance to detach from their technology, by the end of the week, many of the students viewed the lack of phones and computers in their daily lives as a refreshing change.
During the week, the students slept in cabins, lived in a wooded forest, and conducted all activities alongside the 17 staff members — many of whom are educators. Those aspects added to the tight-knit feel of the camp.
By the end of the week, the students were able to transfer the information they had learned at the camp into action plans they could apply to their own communities. The Highland Park students left the camp with a vision of a unified Highland Park High School and have used the 2015 school year to achieve that goal. The five students want to create a tighter bond between the school’s student body, and they hope to develop a family-like environment at the school. Using some of the techniques employed at YouthROOTS, the five students will use workshops, assemblies, and community-wide measures to further their message across Highland Park.
At the Nov. 10th council meeting, Ms. Ruiz, Mr. Arp, and Mr. Tulloch presented their experiences, shared their takeaways, and voiced thoughts about the camp to the town council. The three spoke on what they had learned, how they would apply it to Highland Park, and why future involvement in the camp would be beneficial for the community.
A look back at the 2015 financial process also raises questions about the future of Highland Park’s involvement in YouthROOTS. Mayor Brill Mittler has stated that she hopes to continue the program, but a capable source of funding for the trip has yet to be found. Anyone interested in pursuing the YouthROOTS opportunity through fundraising, should reach out to Mayor Brill Mittler and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Scott Taylor.
Highland Park Planet writer Amiri Tulloch – and participant in YouthROOTS – contributed to this story.