“Let’s be honest. This sucks,” wrote Raven Stein.
That’s how her recent post to a new website where Capital Region youth can express how the COVID-19 pandemic has upended their lives began.
While she offered counsel on how to deal with these challenging times, others share art, poetry and informative article on we-can-together.com, a website established by student activists at Shaker, Schalmont and other schools around the region.
Stein, outlined a daily routine to exercise, eat healthy, take care of one’s mind and body and care for loved ones. But she also urges the reader to not be too hard on themselves. After all, let’s be honest, these are difficult days.
“Get dressed in the morning,” the article advises, telling her peers that even just changing from pajamas to daytime sweats “can make all the difference!”
“Right now, our mental health struggles are at an all time high,” Stein wrote, urging students to not feel bad about a lazy day here and there but to not make that the routine. “We’re with you, and we will get through this together.”
While a Shaker High School school psychologist contributed an article on coping with life and school while stuck at home, most of the submissions to the website are the work of local students.
Maryam Ahmad, a Shaker High School senior, had planned to submit an article of some kind after being asked to do so by pair of teachers, including North Colonie teacher Thea MacFawn, who founded the Capital Region Institute for Human Rights and is helping to coordinate the new online project. But when Ahmad actually started writing, a poem flowed out.
“We are living history, but we never wanted to,” she wrote in the poem, titled “In the time quarantine…”
“History makes us watch the numbers go even higher/until we are number from the grief and pain that is happening/somewhere else, to someone else,” the poem continued.
She said the poem attempted to convey a sense of hope that there would be another side to what, for now, feels like, as she put it in the poem, “a seemingly infinite blip of time.”
“I wrote my poem almost out of nowhere,” Ahmad said in a recent interview. “It symbolized the tentative hope we all have of it getting better.”
As a senior, Ahmad said she is lamenting the loss of a somewhat relaxing second semester with friends and classmates. But the pandemic has shuttered many students away at home. She said she has virtual meet-ups with friends, gathering to eat lunch, but that it’s not the same as hanging out in person. She and others involved with the website hope it’s a platform for students to connect on a deeper level.
“A lot of people are alone and feel cut off; this is a way for us to reach each other and express our own views,” she said. “I want people to be able to use this time and be creative and talk about what they are going through.”
MacFawn said the idea for the website was to have a place for and by students, where youth from across the state could express themselves in different ways. The website is open to youth to contribute artistically or by providing resources and advice applicable for other youth. MacFawn said she is hoping to spread word among colleagues and invite students from across the state to participate.
“We really want to bring in anyone, any young person who is interested statewide,” MacFawn said.
“It really does take the shape of whatever the student feels is the important topic.”
For the past six years, MacFawn has hosted an annual summer symposium on human rights and social activism for students around the Capital Region. Many of the student interns who helped to organize the annual event have since gone on to lead marches, walkouts, rallies and protests themselves.
“It has been fascinating to see young people come in year after year and find their voice and be building community,” MacFawn said.
Last year, students met for the symposium at the New York State United Teachers buildings in Latham.
This year’s symposium — scheduled for June 29-July 1 — will go virtual. The symposium is still set to host keynote speaker Samantha Power, former United States ambassador to the United Nations. She plans to speak with students remotely, MacFawn said. Power originally was slated to appear remotely, so it was an easier transition than other elements of the program, she said.
MacFawn said she hopes the virtual setting enables more students to attend than have in past years, when transportation has served as a barrier to some. The cost to participate is $40 includes books that will be mailed to participants, MacFawn said.
“They are finding out ways to organize themselves digitally,” she said of the constrained environment student activists must operate in now.
Schalmont senior Hamza Noor, who helped organize the website, is set to attend American University in the fall, where he hopes to continue his activism. But the end of his senior year is not playing out as expected.
“It’s been hard to wrap our minds around,” he said. “All throughout high school all we heard was senior year is the best, senior year is the best. I was really counting on that to be true.”
Noor was supposed to spend two weeks in March in New York City as a delegate at a United Nations conference on women. An international nonprofit that works on women’s clinics in Africa that Noor has worked with in recent years invited him to participate.
“It was going to be the biggest opportunity of my life,” he said.
The conference was slated to start March 9; it was canceled March 5. While Noor said the organization promised him a spot next year, he doesn’t know what his schedule will be like with college. Despite the losses wrought by the pandemic, Noor said it has also accentuated the importance of the most basic things in life.
“There is always something that can change and your priorities always have to be your safety and the safety of your family,” Noor said. “When we have the luxury of living the lives we do, we lose sight of that.”
Noor, who contributed an explainer on meditation to the WeCanTogether site, said organizing virtually is a new kind of challenge but that it helps feed the motivations of organizers and other youth. It’s a chance to see other students and to talk and laugh and act.
“We just needed that human connection to be able to talk to each other, that’s important for any kind of organizing,” he said. “It makes you feel not alone when you are at home.”