Group of Ashland High School students looks at the world and asks what they can do
By Debora Gordon for Ashland.news
The Truth to Power club at Ashland High School, a group of about 25 students, looks at the challenges of the world and asks themselves what they can do.
Their website defines their mission: “Truth to Power Club is a group of high school students located in Ashland, Oregon. In a world wrought by climate change and inequities, we speak our truth to all the proponents of power in modern America. We organize around common values; lend our energy, passion, and intelligence to movements; advance inclusive and diverse conversations; and seek to cultivate positive changes for our local community.”
Co-president Isadora Millay explained that the name of the group, “Truth to Power” comes from the Quakers.
“It really means speaking your truth,” Millay said. “Speaking your truth to obtain power, your truth is your power, you have power, and you’re using that power to make change. It also means speaking truth to the proponents of power in the world: capitalism, corporations, corrupt governments, everything that is wrong in our world, your truth to that power. So it’s both speaking truth to get power and speaking truth to take down and challenge power.”
Millay and fellow student Anya Moore conceived the idea in 2019.
“The idea started when I moved to Ashland High School, and I had prior work with radio. I really wanted to merge radio and activism because it’s such a great way to get voices out,” Millay said. “I heard of the NPR student podcast challenge. This was a little group that I put together to create this podcast, and we submitted it and got honorable mention. The podcast was about teen anxiety. Afterwards I had seen a lack of teen activism and participation here in the community, and I really wanted an outlet for teens to have a voice.”
Millay approached one of her teachers, Shane Abrams, who would become the faculty advisor, and Moore.
“I said, ‘Hey, we worked really well together (on the podcast). What if we started up this club, Truth to Power?’”
The club began in 2020.
Millay felt Ashland was lacking opportunities for teens to get involved in critical political and social issues.
“It was because there was not any outlet for teens to have a voice, and to be activists and work in our community and make change,” Millay said. “I wanted to create a way for teens to have a creative process that also helped create change and build community. Our official mission is to empower, cultivate, teen activism and community participation through social justice podcasts and transformative projects.”
Club member Tara Vivrett, a senior, was also looking for opportunities to work on social and political issues. Her interest grew, in part, out of her work as an intern on the Peace House Board of Directors.
“They wanted us there to help bridge that gap between the younger people of Ashland and them,” Vivrett said. “Through that, we met people that work at Uncle Foods Diner, which is the food diner that delivers meals around town.”
“We made our ‘Promise to Aidan’ (Ellison, a Black teen killed by a white man in Ashland in 2020.) As a part of that, there’s a podcast that a club member is working on providing the history,” Vivrett added. “We’ve done a lot of podcasts relating to that; it started with a series of three anti-racism workshops, bringing together over 200 community members to learn about anti-racism and how to actively practice being anti-racist, along with the screening and discussion of the movie “13th,” which is an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality. We also created the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) celebration mural on the outside wall of Ashland High School that honors Aidan Ellison and the lives of many other BIPOC artists, activists and poets.”
Junior Simone Starbird joined Truth to Power in January 2021.
“I went to the first meeting and never stopped going,” Starbird said. “It was mostly because of such a lack of opportunity to do the work that I had been active in (during) middle school. I was super politically active, although not as much as I would have liked to have been because I went to a small school and there wasn’t anything like Truth to Power. When I started my high school career, there wasn’t anything where I could contribute to solving the problems that I wanted to see solved. Truth to Power just seemed like the best option for that and made me feel like I was making a difference. I do feel like I’m making a difference, but it’s hard to feel like that a lot of the time. We put so much of our lives into this work, and bad things just keep happening, but on the smaller scale, I definitely see differences even just in this town and the people that come to our events.”
Vivrett also was more motivated after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“We wanted to do something that was tangible, and help people who were more greatly affected by it, so we planned a movie screening of ‘The Janes.'”
The film features pre-Roe v. Wade era female activists calling themselves “Jane” who build an underground network for women with unwanted pregnancies and provide low-cost and free illegal abortions to an estimated 11,000 women.
“It was a good movie. We hosted it at the Bellevue Grange,” Vivrett said. “We definitely want to continue fighting what has happened, whether through more podcasts or fundraising. We’ll see what ends up happening, but it’s something we’re passionate about.”
The club has received both support and criticism.
“I’d say I have the most supportive family ever for this work,” Millay said. “I grew up in a social justice/activist/homesteader family, so I’ve grown up going to protests, being socially hyper aware of what’s going on. I grew up with discussing the New York Times every single morning at breakfast. My family has been incredibly supportive and helpful.”
Criticism has come from some community members, she added.
“The houseless issues and when we do anti-racism workshops and other — sometimes is not supported. We’ve gotten a lot of pretty awful pushback and racist people not agreeing with the work we’re doing, but we just keep doing what we’re doing; it’s the reason why we are doing what we’re doing.”
“We had one of our anti-racism workshops, and there were some older people where who were saying ‘I don’t even understand why this is like a thing.’ We had this one guy we ended up kicking out. He was very combative and just kept interrupting. We’ve also had some Facebook comments about anti-racism workshops.”
Starbird said a workshop Truth to Power organized after Ellison’s killing called “Dear White Folks: Let’s Talk About Racism” got a lot of pushback. There were a lot of people saying, “Racism isn’t white people’s fault,” saying “Dear White Folks” is racist in itself. “Targeting a specific race to work on a certain problem is not racist,” she said. “It talks about learning how to be an anti-racist.”
Club members are also thinking past high school. Starbird plans to attend college.
“I’m not totally sure what to study, but I definitely want to keep activism as a piece of my life, and definitely want to have journalism that comes with podcast and radio,” Starbird said, adding she plans to continue Truth to Power’s mission. “Keeping the general idea of what we’re doing in Truth to Power, always have that kind of thing in mind, making a difference little by little.”
Millay also plans to attend college and is currently considering her options.
“I definitely want to go a four-year university,” Millay said. “Definitely want to go into a business career, specifically something related to entrepreneurship. I just really see business being a way to shape the world and influence and make positive change, so that’s what I want to focus on, something I’m really passionate about. I want to continue my activist work. I really love the radio podcast part, so whether that’s in college, doing live radio, podcast, getting that journalism aspect in, I would love to keep doing that. And I really want to focus in on sustainable business with whatever I do that works to make a positive change, so I hope to incorporate activism that way for sure, but I’ll be doing stuff outside of that career, whether it be with local groups or whatever ends up happening.”
While still a high school sophomore, Vivrett is also thinking ahead.
“I just want to continue to create change in whatever community I end up in,” Vivrett said. “I obviously have to think about a four-year university, something with business and technology. I’m not sure how it’s going to play into what I’m doing now, but I think it’s a good start because a lot of real change has the chance to be creative through projects and businesses. I want to continue the kind of work we do now. I don’t know if it’s going to mix with my actual career, if it’s going to be a separate thing I do, but I definitely see it in my future.”
Going forward, the Truth to Power club plans to continue work on climate change, inequities, and advancing inclusive and diverse conversations.
Ongoing projects for the club include:
- “Our Promise to Aidan” in response to the murder of Aidan Ellison, a Black teenager and former student of Ashland High School: “We vow to never forget you. We commit to ensuring that your death will catalyze a transformation in our town. We will use our voices and the opportunities afforded us to stand with the people of color in our community. We will fight to honor you and all of the others who have fallen victim to the systemic racism that is ingrained in our valley. We will fight to be better.”
- Podcasts, including on “Oregon’s History of Racism,” an examination of white supremacy and exclusion laws in Oregon; “The Almeda Fires,” a three-part series including the experiences of emergency responders, single mothers, activists and teens; “First Love,” a reminder of the beautiful things that exist simultaneously with more intense topics; and “Stereotyped,” a mini-series featuring students at AHS debunking their own stereotypes. (Podcasts also available on Spotify here.)
- Service, including the BIPOC Celebration Mural, a memorial to Aidan Ellison that honors the leadership and contributions of BIPOC from the Rogue Valley; support for the houseless, with club participation and organization around surveying, food distribution, and shelter support; menstrual dignity acts, working with the school to provide free pads and tampons in every bathroom on campus; and KSKQ, starting a live radio segment.
Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist who recently moved to Ashland from Oakland, California.
Nov. 11 update: Tara Vivrett’s class year corrected.