From Singapore to Iowa: A Teen Activist on Protest and the Fight for Recognition

Shoshanna Hemley speaking with Greta Thunberg at a climate action in Iowa City. Via Shoshanna Hemley.

My leg shook as I got up from my seat, nervous that my math teacher would question my rush out the door before the bell rang for our fifteen-minute break. I pushed through the hallway while taking off my sweatshirt, revealing an orange tank top. As I reached the foyer of the school, I met my collaborators and started handing each seventeen pieces of paper with seventeen different names written in orange. We spread them out, forming a border on the floor that enclosed the students who were starting to sit down, apprehension in their eyes and voices. They set their bags down as they mumbled to each other, eager and curious to see what I had planned, while pinning the orange ribbons we’d made onto their white uniform polos. More and more students continued to show up, forcing us to expand our border of names.

As the voices and whispering settled, I pulled out my phone and started to read: “Cassie Bernall, seventeen. Columbine. Steven Curnow, fourteen. Columbine.”

I listed names for minutes on end. My voice became unsteady as I came to 2012.

“Jessica Rekos, six. Sandy Hook. Olivia Engel, six. Sandy Hook.”

I continued to read the names, until finally I came to those for which I had organized the sit-in: “Alyssa Alhadeff, fourteen. Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Nicholas Dworet, seventeen. Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”

I ended with a minute of silence, though this was interrupted by some students, anxious about missing class as the bell rang, leaving early. After gathering the papers from a now empty foyer, I entered my next class. When I opened the door, I was met with a smile from my teacher; she’d watched the nine minutes it took for me to read all of the names. She hadn’t marked me late.

This was the first protest I ever organized. The overwhelming support I received was not only heartwarming, but unexpected. I was attending an international school in Singapore, where protesting was illegal, and where I found that going against the norm was looked down upon more broadly. I was at a school where students valued their grades more than anything, so when I brought up the idea of a protest that would interrupt the school day, teachers and peers alike scoffed at first. It didn’t help that the protest was in reaction to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which was thousands of miles away from us.

That evening, I received a direct message on Instagram from a boy in my grade threatening to call the police on me for organizing a protest, but I didn’t take him seriously. I received another message, this one from a junior who I looked up to but barely knew. She told me that I had inspired her. I was just a freshman, and I had inspired her, an upperclassmen. Her words were motivation to continue fighting for what I believed in.

The next year, I would run through the rain in order to reach the Iowa City Community School District offices, where I was now attending school. There, I would be one of only half a dozen students, sitting on the floor every Friday, inspired by the school strike for the climate movement started by Greta Thunberg, demanding our superintendent create a climate resolution. We showed up to school board meetings and city council meetings, and at times it seemed hopeless. No one wanted to miss school every Friday, so we were overjoyed by the days when we had more than a dozen peers sit with us.

I found myself run down by the amount of work to be done. There were moments where I didn’t want to skip school, where I didn’t want to have to miss the same class again. There were moments where it was tiring and felt pointless. But then, we gained momentum. The school board proposed a climate resolution, adding AP Environmental Science to the curriculum and promising solar panels as part of our renovations. The city declared a climate crisis. I felt accomplished. All those protests, starting with the first in Singapore, led to this. Yet, even with this success, I didn’t have support or recognition from my peers. There were institutional changes, but those my age in Iowa didn’t seem invested in them.

And then I got a call.

“Guess who’s coming to Iowa City?”

“No. No. No. It isn’t...” I exclaimed, hyperventilating as I paced across my bathroom.

“Yes. It is.”

Three days later, I stood on a stage in front of 3,000 people, giving a speech next to Greta Thunberg. After over a year of small-scale protests and breaking the rules for what many times felt like nothing, all the sweat of my brow had manifested itself into this moment. So long I felt alone in my efforts. We had gained momentum with the school board and the city government, but we still hadn’t reached our peers. Regardless of our accomplishments, my classmates didn’t celebrate with me. I had skipped so much school to make a point, but my friends hadn’t skipped with me. I took a stand that was successful, and while my peers weren’t against me, they weren’t with me either. Now, I no longer felt alone in my efforts. Instead, I was surrounded by thousands, including a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. I’d held my beliefs and morals close, no matter the consequences.

I do the same today as I protest for the Black Lives Matter Movement. It takes moral courage to stand up against a racist system that tear gasses protestors amidst a global pandemic. Fellow protestors around the nation require moral courage in order to face the injustices within our systems. As a society, if we don’t stick with the fight, even when it feels hopeless, we will make no progress. It’s not the easy things that need accomplishing, but those that are difficult and those that take work.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Hemley, Shoshanna. "From Singapore to Iowa: A Teen Activist on Protest and the Fight for Recognition." 24 July 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 11, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/singapore-iowa-teen-activist-protest-and-fight-recognition>.

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