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Hannah Maurer: Student’s causes bend toward justice

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Ask a group of high school students to name their favorite celebrity and you’ll get answers such as actress Emma Watson or singer Demi Lovato. Hannah Maurer marches to a different drummer. Her “political crush” is voting rights activist Jason Kander, Missouri’s former secretary of state.

“His picture is the background on my computer screen,” she said of the Democratic Party’s up-and-comer.

Hannah Maurer

Maurer considers Kander a hero. Maurer’s mother Marti has a hero, too: her daughter. “Hannah is a passionate young woman who stands up for others and to others when she sees injustice, bullying and hate,” she said.

When Maurer is not studying, she supports progressive causes, including gender equality and LGBTQ rights. If you followed the news last fall about the Parkway School District, Maurer’s name may be familiar. She started an awareness effort when Parkway scheduled a district wide 2018 graduation date that coincided with Shabbat and Shavuot. That didn’t sit well with Maurer. She didn’t think it was right that her Conservative and Orthodox friends wouldn’t be able to wear a cap and gown and accept their diplomas on an important occasion. She decided to speak up for those students. 

Maurer attends United Hebrew Congregation, where she is a teacher’s assistant in the religious school. In this situation, as a Reform Jew, she was mostly concerned for her classmates.

Hannah Maurer

Hannah Maurer helps lead a class at United Hebrew’s religious school.

“I did my research to see what the date conflicted with, and it wasn’t just Shavuot,” she said. “It was also Ramadan. The school district was planning to have all four of the Parkway graduations on the same day. That meant Muslim kids would go too many hours without eating, and that wouldn’t be healthy. But the thing that stuck with me the most was the fact that it was a Jewish holiday and I had friends who couldn’t control that.”

Maurer saw an injustice and she took action. She started a petition that gained enough media attention and support from the community that the school district moved the graduation date.

“I had no idea how to go about it, so I went to change.org and it guided me on everything,” Maurer said. “It asked questions like,  ‘What is your objective?’ and, ‘Who do you want it to go to?’ I entered all the information, and it just blew up.

Hannah Maurer

Hannah Maurer helps lead a class at United Hebrew’s religious school.

“With social media today, it’s so easy to get your message out there, so I just shared it on Facebook, and people shared the message. It went halfway around the world. We had people in Israel, South Africa, Mexico, all these different countries who said this was wrong and got involved, which was cool.”

The petition eventually generated more than 2,000 signatures. Maurer’s efforts made her a bit of a folk legend with her classmates but initially put her at odds with some adults and members of the Parkway School Board. But her passion for a cause and concern for others eventually gained their respect. 

One of Maurer’s fans is Keith Marty, superintendent of the Parkway School District.

Hannah Maurer

Hannah Maurer (left) and her mom, Marti Maurer (center) take part in the March for Our Lives in downtown St. Louis on March 24. At right is Randi Velick. Photo: Bill Motchan

“She’s got the confidence to speak well and speak intelligently about her feelings,” Marty said. “I’ve come to really admire her and appreciate her goals and what she stands for. She’s a lovely young lady.”

One of the issues the school board faced when Maurer initially called attention to the graduation date was how to achieve a solution and find an alternate date and location during a busy time of year. They were able to do just that by moving the joint four-school graduation from May 19 to the previous week for Parkway North and Parkway Central. The process was an education to one educator: Marty.  

“I made some assumptions, and Hannah set me straight in a sense and helped me understand what I needed to consider,” he said. “I was probably naïve a little bit about how passionate people are about the holiday. Hannah took it on and wasn’t shy about it.”

It wasn’t the only time Maurer has made her voice heard about a social, political or local school issue. She campaigned for two school board candidates and against one, Jeanie Ames, a self-proclaimed “confederate” who learned the hard way that social media leaves a trail of bread crumbs. Ames retweeted a message about banning Islam in the United States, and called Michelle Obama a “giant rat” on Twitter.

Hannah Maurer

Maurer found Ames’ positions alarming, so she campaigned against her. It put Maurer in an awkward position, because she has been a longtime classmate and friend of Ames’ son. It speaks to Maurer’s character that she frequently checked in with him to make sure he was doing OK during the pre-election media coverage.

Marti Maurer thinks her daughter may have inherited her grandfather’s political savvy. He held public office in New Hampshire. Her grandmother was a bit feisty, too.

Maurer said: “I always heard stories about how my grandma was an activist and fought for what she believed in. During this whole process, my mom kept telling me that my grandma would be so proud, so I think a lot of it was from their influence and their genes, and just the fact that my generation doesn’t put up with anything, and I love that about us. We’re the first ones to take action, and I think that’s really cool.”

When she’s not campaigning for school issues, Maurer creates a safe space for kids who have been bullied. She started a group called Brave Space, to support those students. She also helped organize a student feminist group called Missinterpretation.

There’s one more big issue that Maurer couldn’t ignore: guns. She organized a group of students at her school to fight gun violence, and she served as a spokesperson during a press conference. She also led a school walkout March 14 to protest the ease with which guns can be obtained. That action earned her even more respect from Marty.

“If she were alongside those students in Parkland, Fla., she’d fit in well,” he said. “I was very proud of her at the press conference about the student walk-out. She’s been very articulate. I’m old enough to remember the ’60s and ’70s and Vietnam, and I wasn’t a rabble rouser, I wasn’t as confident or willing to speak as Hannah is, but I’m really proud of our students and our young people who are willing to stand up, and Hannah represents some of the best we have.”