Every Tuesday at 3:45 p.m., a group of students meets in room 240 at Winona Senior High School (WSHS). It’s not a sports team, a drama club, or a tutoring center; it’s the students of Fortitude. While fortitude is by definition about courage and facing adversity, for the students of WSHS it is also about both educating and welcoming not only their peers, but everyone.
Fortitude students gathered together prior to a homecoming pep rally at Winona Senior High School on Friday, September 20.
The group has tackled hot-button issues like bullying, racism, sexuality, and mental health, but they have broader goals. Multiple members were quick to note that Fortitude truly is for everyone. Fortitude uses skits, plays, and events like Coming Out Day, to reach fellow students. The members hope that speaking out about social issues will be more meaningful if it comes from other students.
Bailei Johnson, Andrew Jones, Nolan Maxwell, Jonathan Queen, Shae Alcamo, and Pippa Armstrong make up a portion of the Fortitude group members. These students, along with a few others, and Lora Hill, their advisor, are hoping not only to change the school, but the world.
“Trying to change the world around one single person is literally going to get you nowhere. With Fortitude we’re trying to change the town, which we’re hoping will turn into the state, and the country, and the world,” explained Jones.
“I want people to know that Fortitude is about more than just being another race, or sexuality, or religion; Fortitude supports everyone,” Maxwell said. It is for anyone who may feel unsupported or alone, he added.
Andrew explained that even though he doesn’t describe himself as being a student in a minority group, Fortitude has taught him a lot about having an open mind.
Pippa Armstrong, a freshman, just recently became involved in Fortitude, but was actually invited to join last year, as an eighth grader. Armstrong organized A Day of Silence at Bluffview last year, but was frustrated when students made a game of it, refusing to take it seriously. Armstrong was too intimidated to join while still in middle school, but looked forward to joining Fortitude as a freshman.
“When I come here I feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself,” she said.
Armstrong hopes that the group can help others look beyond stereotypes. “Hate can be really, really strong, and it’s the easiest thing to do, just to hate and be blind; but I want people to be able to see the good in everybody, and in themselves,” she said.
Shae Alcamo, a sophomore, had heard about Fortitude over the years, but had been too busy to participate until this year. After viewing a play that Fortitude helped put on last year, Alcamo wanted to become more involved in educating others.
Jonathan Queen, a junior, was involved in a group called Diversity at the middle school and teachers recommended he become involved with Fortitude in high school. Queen also had family members that had previously participated in Fortitude, and explained that he continued to come to Fortitude out of interest and based on positive experiences. “Every time I’ve gone, I’ve come out having a good time,” he added.
Junior Nolan Maxwell got involved with Fortitude after Bailei Johnson invited him to help out with The Day of Silence as a sophomore. There are people that really celebrate diversity in this school, he said. Maxwell explained that any negativity he’s experienced has strictly been from himself. “I’ve felt like I’m wrong in a sense, because growing up you hear all of this stuff about who you’re supposed to be. Eventually I learned that you can be yourself, and, in fact, it’s actually great.”
Bailei Johnson, who is a senior, became involved with Fortitude her freshman year, after moving to Winona two weeks before the end of the first trimester. Johnson looked to a friend to get acclimated to her new school. “I followed him to Fortitude one day and I never really left,” she noted.
Johnson added that she had struggled with coming to terms with her own sexuality. “Coming here has helped me come to terms with the fact that I'm going to be okay; I don’t need to listen to a book that is going to tell me what to do and what not to do,” she said.
Andrew Jones, a senior, became involved with Fortitude after his Drama Club director brought that group to learn more about Fortitude. Jones felt that contributing to the group would benefit the school greatly. “It’s helped me have a better tolerance of people who are racist or sexist, and a better understanding of what some of these terms actually mean. It really helps tell me what it’s like to be a part of a minority.”
Members of Fortitude said that a recent school speaker, Dr. Jamie Washington, had a positive effect on the student body. Washington asked members of the student assembly to stand if statements such as, "I am a sophomore," or "I am bisexual," among others, applied to them.
Johnson explained that Washington started off with simple questions before probing deeper into issues like economic status, cultural background, and sexuality. “Usually you just see the outsides of people — preps, jocks, freaks.”
“The activity seems really simple in nature, but it’s actually quite complex,” Maxwell explained. “You get to see who is like whom and everyone is participating. One of my teachers said it took a lot of courage, and that’s when I felt brave.”
Fortitude members felt that Dr. Washington got to the core of what Fortitude is really about, inviting individuals to open up and be themselves. Dr. Washington also encouraged the students to leave their comfort zones by meeting new people. “There were seniors with sophomores and freshman with juniors, I felt really happy that we could do this as a school; it was great to see,” Jones said.
Armstrong hopes that Fortitude's creative projects will continue to change how people view things. “If we really get in there where they haven’t been hit before, then they’ll start to pay attention,” she added.
Principal Kelly Halverson noted how impressed she has been by the members of Fortitude. “They are really passionate about educating other students, and not pushing their ideas on them, just educating them,” Halverson said. “It’s very student-driven.”
The students of Fortitude hope that more people will give their group a chance. “I wish that anybody who did feel like they were a minority would come to Fortitude, because they’re never going to be judged here; everybody here welcomes you with open arms,” Queen said.
“Even if we got just one person, maybe that one person will go and tell friends,” Jones said.
“Everyone should join Fortitude,” Queen added.
Lora Hill, the advisor to Fortitude, works with the students to help put on events like Day of Silence, Night of Speaking, and Coming Out Day. Hill invests her time and money in Fortitude, putting the fee she receives for heading the group right back into it.
Hill declined to be interviewed, because she wanted it to be about the students, but without her Fortitude would be nowhere, Alcamo said.
“She inspires me to want to be something, something to help the world,” Queen said. Ms. Hill is the perfect person to lead Fortitude because she’s just so passionate about this group and what it stands for, he added.
“She has the passion; she’s not afraid to not just stand for what she believes in, but run charging at what she believes in,” Armstrong said.
Hill has faced opposition from people from time to time, and the members of Fortitude are grateful for how strong she is. “Any person that can take that amount of criticism, to me, is an absolute superhero, in my eyes; an absolute invincible person who cares about the world,” Jones said.