Montclair High School students receive humanitarian award for leadership
Comini. (COURTESY MONTCLAIR SCHOOLS)
Three Montclair High School seniors, all members of the school’s Center for Social Justice, received Kean University’s 2022 Joy Prescott Humanitarian Award for Student Leadership and Dedication.
Sofia Batres, Justin Comini and Aidan Cummins were nominated for the award by the Center for Social Justice teachers, said Jaime Walker, the center’s lead teacher. The teachers selected student nominees who “have shown leadership qualities in their individual efforts to create equity within the school and greater community,” Walker said.
“This award is an honor and truly deserved by these students,” Walker said. “These senior scholars have displayed tremendous growth in their leadership skills during their three years in the center and now serve as mentors to younger members of the community.”
The award was established by Kean's Holocaust Resource Center and Diversity Council on Global Education and Citizenship to honor Prescott, a university employee, upon her retirement. This is the first time Montclair High School students have received the award, Walker said.
Batres, a member of the district’s National Equity Team and the founder of the Audre Project, a club for misogyny-affected persons of color to build community and create a safe environment, saw that students, especially BIPOC students, needed more support.
“For some reason, ever since sophomore year during quarantine I felt this sudden urge to create the spaces where I see holes,” Batres said. And in working to do so, she was heavily inspired by her Center for Social Justice teachers, whose “teaching style pushed us to think further than analytical work, but also about the cultural relevance of the pieces,” she said.
“They also commonly put the human before the student, which looking back, I’ve become really appreciative of,” Batres said of her teachers.
Batres has found community during her time at Montclair High School, and she wants to provide that opportunity to other students. Batres volunteers with the Oruguitas program, through the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, which offers support to Montclair’s youngest English Language Learners and is also a member of the School of Visual and Performing Arts tech program, which has become like a second home to her, she said.
“I feel like I grew up a quiet girl who always felt this feeling of othering, so finding and creating these spaces allowed me to grow with others like me as we learn together how to self-advocate for ourselves and others,” Batres said.
And through her work with the equity team, Batres said she’s learned to reimagine what school can be like.
“I’ve learned that we have to honor and invest in our community’s stories, and through the practice of listening I realized how important it is for me to center my work around my community,” she said.
Comini holds several leadership roles in the school and community – student representative to the Montclair Board of Education, student liaison to local LGBTQ group OUT Montclair and co-founder/co-president of End the Stigma, a mental health awareness club.
Joining groups in the district and the community, especially the center, has given Comini a sense of community in Montclair.
“Being in the Center of Social Justice, I have truly fallen in love with our school community in a totally different way,” Comini said. “I had a really difficult freshman year, and once I joined CSJ, my view of school and the world changed for the better. It's honestly what drives me to go to school each day.”
These days, taking up leadership positions is something that comes naturally to Comini, they said.
“If there is something that I think should be done, I'm not really scared to make the change myself,” Comini said. “However, I think it's also really important to note that I don't do anything on my own, and I am lucky enough to always work with a team of people that work just as hard as I do.”
But getting to this point, leading classmates and community members, has taken a lot of work, Comini said. When Comini was in fifth grade, they were diagnosed with dyslexia.
“If anyone told me when I was 13 years old that I would get up and speak in front of hundreds of people every month, I would have never believed them,” Comini said. “I would have been too scared to read off a piece of paper in front of others. The journey as a whole has made me proud.”
Comini also works at Vanguard Theater Company, which operates under the mission of DREAM: diversity, reciprocity, education, activism and mentorship.
Cummins, the senior class president who has held leadership positions in the Black Student Union and the Asian Student Union, also found high school clubs to be great sources of community, he said. Cummins is also a member of the School of Visual and Performing Arts and part of The Passing Notes, the high school a capella group.
“In my early high school years, I had trouble finding and fitting into student communities because I often felt underrepresented,” said Cummins, who is of mixed Indo- and Afro-Caribbean heritage. “There’s not many people I know whom I can relate to on that level. However, because of that identity, I pride myself in being able to fit in many categories, not just one.”
Cummins found spaces at Montclair High School where he could connect with his classmates of diverse backgrounds, he said.
“Montclair as a town prides itself in being socially and ethnically diverse, and each student affinity group is representative of this,” Cummins said. “To me, there is something so beautiful about students coming together to engage in meaningful dialogue.”
And being able to lead these groups has allowed Cummins to create more opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds, he said.
“For me, each of these groups have never failed to make me feel welcome, and constantly encourage dialogue, security, and social justice as their values,” Cummin said. “I wouldn't have been able to hold leadership in these groups if it weren't for the population of fellow young leaders that back them.”
CENTER FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
In the district press release, all three students thanked the center and their teachers for equipping them with the skills to succeed.
The center, one of Montclair High School’s four small learning communities, is a three-year English and History program with an emphasis “on the impact that social movements have had on the development of history, humanities, literature and the arts,” the district website says.
The center “strives to create an inclusive and safe learning space within a family culture,” Walker said. During the center’s lab course – “the heart of the program” – students look into different social justice issues and injustices, learning through research and by communicating their experiences in group settings, she said.
“Their goal is to identify and create ways to become activists through the use of artistic output such as street art, podcasts, social media, spoken word poetry and film in order to create awareness and empower themselves, their community and ultimately the world,” Walker said.
Kean University supports high school students in learning about social justice and “never fails to recognize rising leaders,” Walker said.
“We are very proud of Aidan, Sofia, Justin and all of our students,” she said.