Meet Crosscut's Courage Award Winner in Public Service
Just before their Christmas break last year, Eastside Catholic High School students got some surprising news: A popular vice principal, Mark Zmuda, was leaving. Almost immediately.
Students took offense at the reason for his departure: Zmuda marred his longtime, same-sex partner. To most Eastside students, it was something that offended their consciences and ideas of human rights, even if they understood full well that their school and the church held a very different view.
In supporting a staff member whom they thought was being treated in a discriminatory manner, students showed a willingness to stand by their beliefs even at the risk of punishment, creating rifts with the adults overseeing their school and putting themselves out front on a controversial issue for weeks and even months. They did so energetically, intelligently and in ways that, while not successful in terms of keeping their vice principal, broadened intelligent discussions on individual rights.
And they did it all while maintaining a respectful attitude and a dialogue with people who held opposing views. Whether you agree or disagree with their issue, the Eastside student protesters demonstrated both courage and civility in the face of extremely difficult, even painful disagreements.
Sienna Colburn was one of the first students to hear that Zmuda was leaving, forced out over his commitment to the man with whom he had a long-term relationship. Sienna, who is 16 and a junior now, was already close to him — and she was shocked and saddened to see what was happening to a man she regarded as a role model and mentor.
Zmuda himself points to her first among the many students who offered him strong support. Even now, he says, "The amount of support and love from my students is fantastic." Zmuda, who is now in the Mercer Island school system, sees the student's protest as an example of the courage they had been taught to value at Eastsaide Catholic.
The students staged walkouts, with hundreds participating, then quickly organized to attract public and media attention to their actions. And they made good use of their digital communication savvy. Sienna came up with a hashtag that helped keep the movement rolling locally and expanding nationally: #SaveMrZ2013. The New York Times made prominent mention of the role the hashtag and their other social media efforts in spreading the protests beyond Eastside to other Catholic and public schools within a day.
Sienna says she found herself taking on roles she hadn't imagined. Lioke spokesperson, about Zmuda and the students' cause to the press and others. "I was really surprised because I never really thought that I would be pushing for something through the news," she says. But even at the beginning there had been no doubt, in her mind, of the need to confront an action that she felt was deeply wrong: "I was just morally obligated to act."
The students are inclined to downplay their own roles and their own courage. Julia Burns, an Eastside senior at the time and now a freshman at Washington State University, says that while she expected some pressure, she never felt threatened by taking a lead role in organizing the protests. She was a senior, after all, and going to leave the school soon. But she also praises the Eastside Catholic staff for creating an atmosphere where students knew their views would be respected.
"It did get awkward at times," she acknowledges. "I knew it was the right thing."
Sienna says that, as time wore on, differences emerged among the students themselves, something she doesn't find surprisinggiven the fairly conservative beliefs of many Eastside Catholic families. The students, however, generally maintained a healthy respect for each despite the differences. Any taunts and insults came from strangers.
Still, there were consequences. Sienna transferred to Skyline High, a large public school with a less tight knit community. The adjustment hasn't been easy.
But the students found comfort in having supported Mark Zmuda in a cause they believed was right. Burns, who only knew Zmuda in passing but grew close to him during the protests, says, "The fact that he lost his job is terrible. But on the other hand, it raised so much awareness."