OHS senior wins race relations prize

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OHS senior wins race relations prize
Ella SherinOlympia High School senior Ella Sherin has been awarded the prestigious Princeton Prize in Race Relations. The honor, sponsored by Princeton University, recognizes high school students who have undertaken significant efforts to advance racial equity in their schools or communities.

Ella is one of only 29 recipients chosen for the honor nationwide, and she represents the Seattle/Portland Region. She will receive a $1,000 cash award and is invited to participate this spring in a Symposium on Race.

During the virtual symposium, Ella will have the opportunity to meet and learn from other Princeton Prize recipients from across the country engaged in racial justice work.

"Her passion and understanding for her culture, her drive to make changes in our system and her ability to take a leadership role in our school community are unprecedented in my 20 years as principal of Olympia High School,” Principal Matt Grant wrote in his nomination letter.

Advocacy for Native education
Shortly after arriving in Olympia from neighboring Lacey two years ago, Ella arranged a meeting with Grant to talk about expanding opportunities for Native students. She also invited other regional Native education leaders, including her former school district’s Native student program specialist.

Not long after that meeting, Ella founded an after-school student group, “Olympia Native Students Union.” The group provides a space for Native students to gather for up to two hours once a week.

“Ella was clearly the leader who helped students think of the things they could do as a team and the importance of connecting as a group,” Grant said.

Over the past two years, students have participated in art activities such as beading and drum-making workshops. They have also hosted an all-Native musical group, sampled foods from different tribes, and had informal conversations to get to know and support one another.

“The after-school group is a place to create more interpersonal cultural relations with people who have the same backgrounds,” Ella said. “There is a level of comfort and a space where we can all express ourselves freely.”

Last year, for example, Ella connected a twelfth grader with community resources to teach him how to weave a cedar hat that he wore at his Olympia High School graduation ceremony – a first, to Grant’s knowledge, at a school commencement ceremony.

This year, just before school started in September, Ella spoke during an OHS staff development training about the importance of including Native history in school curriculum. She introduced herself in Cowlitz, then in Lushootseed to honor the land on which Olympia High was built, then in English. She describes her heritage as being part of three “families” – Native (a member of the Cowlitz Tribe with Abenaki Tribe Ancestry), Korean and white.

The 17-year-old also spoke about Native history this year to the OHS Ethnic Studies class, as well as to a school Community Equity Forum attended by students, teachers and families.

“Her powerful talk inspired our faculty to think about the community cultural wealth in our school,” Grant said. “I believe Ella’s passion for Native history will have a lasting impact on our curriculum.”

During National Native American Heritage Month, the senior collaborated with the local tribal community and district staff to organize a schoolwide assembly focused on Native heritage. The assembly featured a talk by Nisqually Tribal Leader Hanford McCloud, and Ella performed a Women’s Fancy Shawl Native dance, which has its roots in a ceremonial dance called the Butterfly Dance. The shawl is meant to symbolize the wings of a butterfly, and the fancy steps and twirls represent its style of flight. Ella performed the dance again last week and was paired with fellow Native student Kiikii Durant, who danced old-style jingle dress, during an OHS Cultural Assembly.

Ella said she is especially thankful that the Olympia School District hired Sandra Gordon to assume the district’s Native Education & Tribal Relations Program Manager role this year. Gordon, (a member of White Earth Ojibwe & Oglala Lakota), has supported Ella in her advocacy efforts this year.

Before she graduates this June, Ella said she hopes to work with Gordon to grow Native programming for elementary and middle school students, and connect OHS Native students with other Native high school students across the district.

“We must take a deeper dive to educate people about Native history,” Ella said. “We have to be able to elevate the level of respect and bridge the gap between tribal communities and schools so people understand the Native culture.”

Gordon describes Ella as “a mature young adult who focuses on the tangible and valuable contributions she can make in the world in her work advancing Native student voice and cultural awareness in the OIympia School District … I’m very proud that Ella, a Cowlitz Tribal citizen, understands well how her efforts and post-secondary education will someday improve her tribal community and the lives of her people.”

Plans beyond high school
Ella has been awarded a Presidential Scholarship to the Davidson Honors College at the University of Montana where she plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in Native Studies. Her hope, she says, is to also volunteer in Missoula schools to work with Native students.

Her long-term goals include joining the National Native American Law Students Association, earning a law degree and practicing Tribal Law.

Princeton Prize in Race Relations
The Princeton Prize in Race Relations, founded in 2003 in the Washington D.C. and Boston metropolitan areas, is run by more than 400 Princeton University alumni volunteers dedicated to an inclusive and supportive society.

Several other Olympia School District students have been selected for this prestigious award over the past several decades. In 2007, then Olympia High student Anthony Brock received the honor. Today, Brock is principal at McLane Elementary School.

“The Princeton Prize in Race Relations is amongst the most powerful recognitions I have received,” Brock said. “While the award is in recognition of the work students have done specifically in improving race relations, the impact that it had on me specifically was transformative and ultimately led me to life's most important work: being an educator.”

Brock continued, “Through the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, I was able to meet many individuals who were passionate about improving race relations in our state and across the country. Now seeing students like Ella who are the next generation of leaders in our community is inspiring. I look forward to seeing all of the wonderful things she accomplishes as she leads in a space that is often too challenging for others.”