When called upon to find a human rights defender to feature for a national video competition, two Smithtown students did not have to spin the globe very far: They found a powerhouse right in their own backyard.
Marie Carpenter and Brooke Vitulli — this year’s Speak Truth to Power first-place high school winners — spotlighted Tarana Burke of Brooklyn, who started the non-profit Just Be Inc. to help victims of sexual- and physical assault. Burke named her movement “Me Too” – and a decade later it became an alarming hot-button hashtag when sexual assault began consistently making headlines in the fall.
Last week, Carpenter and Vitulli went to the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Speak Truth to Power competition launched by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
A full list of winners can be found at www.speaktruthvideo.com.
“They saw their film on the big screen,” said their Social Studies teacher Joan Rosenthal, a member of the Smithtown Teachers Association, who brought the competition to her students as a class project. “Their parents came, and they had a panel discussion after… on why film is a good tool for social activism.”
The night’s theme was Moving Pictures: How Can Film Move Students to Take Action? Two students from the International School of Los Angeles won the grand prize for their video, “My Neighbor, Gary” about activist Gary Tyler, who works to reform the criminal justice system after he was wrongly accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit.
The first-place Smithtown seniors composed a video on Burke, using clips from interviews, news footage and voiceovers about what she has accomplished by giving people a safe place to publicly say: “Yes, this happened to me, too. And, it’s not okay.”
Rosenthal said a lot of his female students are interested in the #MeToo movement. “They’re naturally interested; they can relate to it.”
“It’s empowering to them that they were recognized for their work,” said Rosenthal, whose classroom is set up with long tables for planning, organizing and collaborating. “It’s not a typical structured class. It’s an active place for social and political work.”
Smithtown was not the only New York public school to boast video winners. In western New York, where it’s continued to snow as recently as Sunday, the sun’s rays came out strong for Webster: the middle school won both first and second places in the Speak Truth to Power video competition, along with a cast of honorable mentions.
First place winners Teagan Murphy and Lily Lagoe chose as their human rights defender Erin Merryn, a child abuse survivor.
Second place award recipients Analiesse Brown and Carley Casteline focused on the #MeToo movement, including Erin Merryn’s campaign.
Cherylyn Wilson, a member of the Webster Teachers Association who is also on NYSUT’s subject area committee for Social Studies, encouraged her seventh grade students to enter the contest as part of their nascent studies on human rights and civil rights.
Merryn fit the video-contest bill as an advocate for Erin’s Law, which has passed in some states and which would require that students be taught the difference between safe secrets and unsafe secrets, Wilson said.
The student contestants used the school library for research, working with media specialist Wendy Sardella, a member of the Webster TA. Audio-visual technician Sam Bell also helped with live action filming, Wilson said.
For the contest, Wilson said the school was able to get a license for video editing software to use with students’ Chrome Books, which every student is issued upon entering middle school to use through their senior year.
When the videos were completed, the educators then reviewed each of them against the rubrics set by the competition – which included using a quote from Robert F. Kennedy, tied to the Declaration of Human Rights.
Third place winners for high school hailed from Potsdam, with a winning video about The Rise of Women. Valerie Chiarenzelli, a member of the Potsdam Teachers Association, was the teacher advisor.