Michaela Weinstein
Michaela Weinstein

Changing school culture by teaching ethics earns Albany teen $36k Diller award

Michaela Weinstein had seen enough — swastikas drawn on textbooks and desks, Nazi salutes in her school’s hallways, racist images on Instagram targeting young black women — and decided it was time to fight back.

Then a freshman at Albany High School, she talked with a close friend and the duo determined that the best way to combat hatred would be by educating younger students about racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.

Weinstein and Melia Oliver created Speak, a program in which high school students lead sessions with preteens focusing on empathy and social justice. Last year, 38 presentations were made to fifth-graders at the three elementary schools in Albany.

That program led to Weinstein’s selection as one of 15 winners nationwide of the 2018 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. The awards, which have been given out since 2007, each come with a $36,000 prize.

“The Friday that the Instagram account was discovered [in March 2017], Melia and I had this really big conversation,” Weinstein recounted for J. “We realized that there was this need and we had a responsibility as citizens of our school and citizens of our world to make this change.”

That Instagram account, Weinstein said, included images of an Albany High student being hung, with representations of flames and the Ku Klux Klan in the background.

Weinstein and Oliver recruited four other students to form Speak’s core group and then began writing an anti-hate curriculum for kids in grades three through five. Topics covered in the sessions have included racism, sexism, the LGBTQ community and bullying.

“Fourth- and fifth-graders are so influenceable,” said Weinstein, 16. “They are really malleable, so you can give them information and they are willing to talk about it and they don’t have these walls built up yet.

“We realized that we really needed a cultural shift, through education at a young age, to not tolerate hate. Obviously it’s not something that can be solved so quickly, but with something like Speak and other activist groups, hopefully some things like this can be helped.”

Alexia Ritchie was the principal at Albany’s Marin Elementary School at the time, and also the parent of an Albany High student. She was impressed by the sample presentations from Speak and gave the go-ahead for lessons in her classrooms.

Students needed to hold peers accountable for hateful remarks.

“What I saw unfolding was not just an adult response” to the Instagram images, she said, “but a student response from Michaela’s group, whose idea was to take a step back and say, ‘Hey, if we could stop this behavior at the elementary school level, we wouldn’t have it in middle school or high school.’

“They recognized the behavior in question was coming from students, so they decided the answer had to come from students,” added Ritchie, who in 2017 became the principal at Albany High. “When peers get together, they share language and it really engages the younger students.”

On Speak’s website, the group says its focus is “change from the students for the students.”

“A cultural change within Albany schools needed to be made, and the only people who could truly make that happen were young people,” the group says on its website. “Students needed to hold peers accountable for hateful remarks.”

Weinstein is entering her junior year as class president and will be a student representative on the school board. Setting and accomplishing goals is nothing new to her — she ran 13 half-marathons (13.1 miles each) in advance of her 2015 bat mitzvah at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

The Diller Teen Awards, which recognize U.S. Jewish teens exemplifying the spirit of tikkun olam, are presented annually by the S.F.-based Helen Diller Family Foundation. An awards ceremony honoring the winners is scheduled for Aug. 20 in San Francisco; five of the 15 winners are from California, though Weinstein is the only one from Northern California (last year there were three).

Speak members meet two or three times a week at Albany High, discussing and educating each other about current events. The group also takes an activist role. Last school year, for example, it co-hosted forums on race and queer issues and helped organize a student walkout for gun reform.

Weinstein participated in a philosophy of ethics program this summer at Columbia University in New York and hopes to use some of what she learned there to further develop Speak, which she hopes to expand to sixth-grade classes this coming school year.

Speak also is developing a curriculum that can be shared with teens around the country to create similar programs in their communities. Classroom presentations now available on the group’s website include “understanding privilege” and “deconstructing normal.”

Though implementing Speak’s lessons has cost relatively little, Weinstein said she’ll use part of her Diller award to pay for items such as posters, web services and transportation — and save the rest for college. In the meantime, she has two more years of high school in which to develop and expand Speak.

“At the end of presentations we often have a closing circle and we ask what have you learned in the past hour, and they’ll sometimes say, ‘I want to make a difference like you’re making a difference,’” Weinstein said. “If a girl in her freshman year with her friend was able to create a program that can reach all these people, it shows we have the ability to make a difference.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.