By ABBY DRIGGERS, Opelika-Auburn News
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — As a sophomore, Izzy Seidman faced a classmate’s ‘Jews are not allowed here’ statement in Advanced English. The lone Jewish student in Auburn High’s 630-student Class of 2021 left the experience impassioned to speak up when others stayed silent, picking up a national award along the way.
Emboldened after the teacher ‘blew it off as if it was nothing,’ Seidman, with support from her mother, reported the anti-Semitic incident, and assistant principal Beth Antoine helped resolve the issue, sparking a newfound passion of advocacy for Seidman.
“I got to speak with the kid, and I think he understood why his comment was wrong,” the now 18-year-old said. “I haven’t been the only person that it’s happened to, and I feel like a lot of incidents happen that haven’t been dealt with the way they should have, or they’ve just been brushed under the rug.”
Her leadership founding the Diversity Council, a 3-year-old club striving to create a safe, inclusive and equitable environment for all Auburn High students, recently won Seidman the 2021 Billy Michal Student Leadership Award by the National WWII Museum, given annually to one student from each state. The Diversity Council founder and co-president was nominated by Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher Blake Busbin.
Seidman is Auburn High School’s second recipient in the award’s five-year history, following Sutton Smith, who was also nominated by Busbin in 2017.
The award is named after a Louisiana man who as a 6-year-old child during World War II helped his one-room school win a scrap paper collection contest to contribute to the efforts overseas.
Focusing on a five-year action plan secured from the district, the student-led initiative pushes for diversity and inclusion education first by bringing in the Anti-Defamation League for teacher training and offering voice recordings of member experiences for staff professional development training before implementing the ultimate goal: campus-wide, student-to-student training.
A hallmark of the council’s plan is setting up Auburn High to become an Anti-Defamation League “No Place for Hate” school.
“To see the impact of (the Diversity Council’s) work and it be recognized is truly awesome,” Seidman said. “I didn’t expect to win at all, so it’s been special.”
Busbin did. While he never taught Seidman, the former 2017 Alabama History Teacher of the Year as recognized by the History Channel and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History helped out the Diversity Council in 2019, aware of Seidman’s leadership.
“I felt Izzy was someone who just threw off any expectations people have for high school students or younger and said, ‘Hey, I can make a difference and it doesn’t matter how people view this problem,'” Busbin said. “And then she was able to come up with a solution and begin working on that and see that vision through.”
The award application process falls to the nominator — all Seidman had to do was accept the February 2021 nomination and double-check her calendar for June 18, when honorees will be virtually recognized at the Museum’s American Spirit Awards program.
“It’s great to see a student like Izzy — even though the circumstances that have brought her to the situation are not desirable — it’s started a dialogue, it’s started a conversation, it’s created this five-year plan and it’s really giving the student that may feel excluded on this campus feel included,” said Daniel Chesser, Auburn City Schools public relations coordinator. “And then for her to be recognized on a national level is just affirmation that what she’s doing is needed, it’s profound and it’s making a difference.”
Before creating the Diversity Council, Seidman organized Shalom Y’all, a club originally formed to share the history of Judaism but has since expanded to all minority religions.
“We meet once a month, and we celebrate a different holiday, eat food, play games and it’s really fun,” Seidman said. “And then the Black Face incident happened, and I felt nothing was done about that in the way it should have been done about it.”
The incident Seidman refers to — a 2019 Snapchat photo of an unidentified Auburn High student appearing in blackface and using a racial slur, as reported by WSFA — prompted the start of Diversity Council, she says.
“We’re hoping to establish a peer-mentor type program over the next few years where seniors will lead sophomores and different team bonding activities, like how to navigate the high school and talking about different topics like mental health or diversity and inclusion and sort of be an older brother or sister on campus,” Seidman said.
Auburn High’s Sarah Holder is the Diversity Council’s sponsor, and Samantha Shipman, Shannon Allison and Donna Yeager serve as faculty members on the council for the 2020-2021 school year.
“It’s extremely gratifying to recognize students throughout the nation for the wonderful contributions they make to their local communities,” Stephen J. Watson, President and CEO at The National WWII Museum, said in a press release. “During World War II, our country needed everyone to come together for a common goal of securing freedom and democracy around the world. Much like Billy Michal’s contribution over 75 years ago, our student honorees prove that their positive actions, no matter how big or small, can make a difference in their communities.”
Aside from Diversity Council and Shalom Y’all, Seidman serves as Auburn girls lacrosse team captain, is a member of Future Health Professionals (HOSA) and runs cross country and track. She plans to work for a government agency on health care policy after obtaining a bachelor’s in science and a master’s degree in public health before becoming a doctor.
Seidman, now passing the baton to a new set of leaders, says persistence is needed for the Diversity Council, whose work is documented under the Instagram handle @AHSdiversitycouncil.
“For everyone, be open to learning new things, trying new things and more importantly unlearning things,” the graduating senior said. “Be resilient and be prepared and be persistent with the work. Sometimes it can be tough, but that’s when it matters most.”