From an early age, Reese Estwick made it her mission to be an ally to those who are marginalized. That passion and dedication has earned her a Young Humanitarian Award from the Manitoba Teachers' Society, making her only one of four students to be recognized in 2019.
"It was a real honour to get this award," said Estwick, a grade 12 student at W.C. Miller Collegiate in Altona. "I was kind of taken...because I worked really hard in the last four years with my work with Prism, or GSA, so it was a surreal thing to have that acknowledged."
Having grown up in a family that believed in loving and accepting everyone despite their background, race, sexuality or gender identity, Estwick says she felt compelled to do more when she first started going to school in Altona in grade 6 where, in her opinion, these topics weren't talked about often.
"I just thought it was important that someone get the conversation going," explained Estwick.
That same year, she attempted to start up an anti-bullying club at the school, but was unsuccessful in bringing that dream to reality. According to Estwick, if she had used the term GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) in the name of the proposed group it would have automatically been approved in accordance with provincial legislation.
"That was defeating to me. I finished grade six, and I didn't have a club and I had put in a lot of time into planning, and what that would look like," she said.
While Estwick's plan for a school group was shelved for the time-being, she spent the next two years acting as a strong advocate, and speaking up whenever she heard something that was demeaning to others.
Then when she arrived in grade 9, Estwick says she made it her mission to educate people on the outcomes of their actions.
"Once you know, you do better," she noted. "Even if I only made one person feel like someone is there for them, and accepts them and is a safe place, that was the goal."
That same year Estwick and her best friend started up a GSA at Miller with the help of teacher Tim Brock. At first, she says there was high attendance at the regular meetings, but the numbers slowly started to dwindle. Four year later the group is still together, however regular meetings are no longer held. Instead, members host a number of school events throughout the year including Pride Week in June which this year invites students from other schools in the division to participate.
Estwick noted it was that first Pride Week event four years ago that posed one of the biggest challenges to her accomplishing her goals.
"That was hard for the staff, I think, because they didn't know what the repercussions of that from parents, other students and community members was going to be," she said, adding she was also told not to use the word 'pride' because it was too provocative. "I felt like the word was worth fighting for, it's how we identify with Pride Winnipeg, and you should have pride in who you are. So after many tears and many letters and presentations and conversations, finally I was able to use the word 'pride'."
Despite these, and many other challenges, Estwick says seeing the progress made within the school has made it worth it.
"When I was in grade nine there was so much derogatory language, there was so much exclusion because someone acted too much like a girl or wore different clothing. Seeing the progression between then and now, and someone will say something and I'll call them out, and you still get the eye roll, but I hear it less now. That's showing me what I'm doing is worth it."
Now in grade 12, Estwick says it's emotional to think she'll be leaving the group behind when she graduates in June, and hopes some younger students will carry it on.
For now, she encourages people to take the opportunity to learn about something before making judgments.
"Even though it can be scary, and it can feel like unknown territory, it's very important to sit back and take a minute before you immediately jump on saying something, or making an assumption about somebody because it can be very hurtful," she added.
Lisa Isaak Eisbrenner nominated Estwick for the award. Below are some excerpts from the nomination letter submitted to PembinaValleyOnline.
"For as long as I've known her, Reese has been a true ally, using her voice to raise up the voices of the unheard. Reese has fought for what is right in a community in which that can be exceedingly difficult, because it often means going against the grain at the cost of relationships. Especially in her teen years, when we (as adults) know how hard it is to be the "different" one, Reese has remained true to herself and remained strong in her role as an ally."
"Reese and one friend started these initiatives together, at a time in their lives when it would have been so much easier to follow the status quo. Despite the backlash they faced from their peers and in the community, Reese continues to champion those that are marginalized – always willing to lend her voice and presence to amplify all marginalized voices. Although the GSA meetings have dwindled due to declining attendance, Reese is now an easily recognizable ally, and through her actions has shown time and again that she will stand up to injustice – regardless of its origins."
In addition to her work at W.C. Miller, Estwick also participated in the 2019 of Forum for Young Canadians this spring. The event provides youth with a week-long behind the scenes look of federal politics at Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
With her sights set on the future, Estwick will attend the University of Regina in the fall and pursue a Political Science major with a minor in Women and Gender Studies. One day she hopes to attend Carleton University with plans of earning her Masters in Political Science, eventually working her way to a career in politics.
Estwick is also part of a government group that is working toward women and gender equality in Canada, and will travel to Ottawa next week for the inaugural meeting.