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Human Rights Club Empowers Students To Take Action in Their Community

Tuesday, November 7, 2023
Students in the human rights club
Students in the Menominee Indian High School human rights club present a poster at the Native Youth Summit in Washington, DC.

ConnectEd spoke with Megan Willard, a civics teacher at Menominee Indian High School in Keshena, Wisconsin. She is the faculty sponsor for the Human Rights Club. 

ConnectEd: Tell us about the Human Rights Club — when did it start? What was the impetus to form it? Why/how did you get involved?

Megan Willard: Our club started with four students in the spring of 2021. The school district inherited a collection of derogatory and racist Native American memorabilia called "Bittersweet Winds" which was owned and curated by Richie Plass (Menominee, Stockbridge-Munsee). He had used it all over the country to educate people on the harmful effects of Native Mascots and racist depictions of Natives in media and pop culture. When Plass died, he gifted his collection to the school district, with the hope that students would carry on his legacy. As the civics teacher, I was asked if I knew any students who would be interested in doing this work. I did, and the four students went that spring to the casino for a meeting of all the principals, assistant principals, athletic directors, etc. of the schools in our region. They set up the exhibit, handed out surveys and answered the questions of the adults at this conference. While I am passionate about this issue, I am not Native American, and my role is to find the students who are interested in this type of work and help them care for the exhibit.

Memorabilia collected by Richie Plass
Just one of many displays of stereotypical Native American memorabilia in the "Bittersweet Winds" collection Richie Plass left to the high school.

ConnectEd: What motivates students to get involved in Human Rights Club?

Megan Willard: The students who participate in the Human Rights Club are critical thinkers who question how the world is. They are curious about how you can make changes in a world with so many terrible things happening. The students are chosen by me because they asked great questions in class or showed a desire to make change in the world. They continue to stay in the club and say yes to the activities because they are brave and courageous. 

ConnectEd: What kinds of activities have the students participated in?

Megan Willard: Our main issue is eliminating Native American mascots through education and conversation using the "Bittersweet Winds" exhibit.

During the 2022-2023 school year, we circulated a petition to remove the word "Indian" from the name of our high school, Menominee Indian High School. This was brought up because a referendum passed and we are building a new high school. The students wanted to see the new high school without this in the name. The petition stated: "We the students of Menominee Indian High School would like to remove 'Indian' from our name. We believe that the term 'Indian' is inaccurate and continues a legacy of white oppressors mislabeling people of color." We received over 180 signatures and presented them to the school board, who approved our petition. We are now working on circulating a survey to the community to help rename the new school.

In May 2023, nine students from the club participated in the Native Youth Summit in Washington, D.C. through the Closeup Foundation. The students toured D.C. and networked with other Native students from around the country. They worked together on the toughest issues facing the reservation, created a plan and presented that plan to all the students and staffers in the U.S. Capitol. Our students chose to focus on preventing overdose deaths.

Students visiting UW Green Bay
Students from the Menominee Indian High School human rights club pose together on the UW-Green Bay campus, where they were invited to speak to a Native American studies class about their work.

This year, we are trying a program called Youth in Government, which is run through the YMCA. Students ages 7-12 take over the capitol for a weekend in March and run a mock government. I am planning to take eight students (one 10th grader and seven 11th graders). Four are currently writing bills to propose in the mock congress, two are preparing to argue cases before the mock supreme court, and two others are preparing to participate in a media capacity. It will be the first time we have participated in Youth in Government and the hope is to expand it to other grade levels and make it a yearly activity.

Our students were invited by a Native American Studies professor at UW-Green Bay to present our work to her "Riz on the Rez" course. Our students did an excellent job presenting, and got several compliments from faculty and students. 

ConnectEd: What do you think is the impact of the club — For the students, for the school, for the community, and for you?

Megan Willard: The biggest impact for the students is building their confidence. Our students are just as intelligent and talented as others, but often don't have access to advantages and resources that aid academic success. Through participation in the club, I have seen students take risks and prove to themselves that they are important and what they have to say is valuable. When they travel or interact with people from outside our school, I see a change come over them. They are building confidence and learning one conversation at a time. I'm especially proud of Kaylee, Desiree , Francis, Miklo, Colt, Nathan, Ravena, and Autumn. I am proud of all of these students who continue to show up and say yes to opportunities. They will leave a legacy they can be proud of at Menominee Indian High School.

ConnectEd: What advice would you give to educators who are interested in supporting or sponsoring a human rights club? 

Megan Willard: Start by accepting and loving your students for who they are right now. Once students feel like you see them and accept them, they may be willing to take risks and say yes to new experiences.

This interview was lightly edited for space and clarity.

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