This is the speech given by Kelly Helton at FFRF’s 40th national convention on Sept. 15, 2017, at the Monona Terrace and Convention Center in Madison, Wis.
She was introduced by FFRF Social Media Coordinator Lauryn Seering:
Kelly Helton was named FFRF’s 2017 Thomas W. Jendrock Student Activist. At just 13, she is one of the youngest student activist awardees in FFRF’s history. Kelly is a middle-school feminist and freethinking activist. She has represented her generation by speaking at many protest rallies, including at events organized by Planned Parenthood, the March for Science, the Tri-State Freethinkers, NaNoCon, International Women’s Day and the regional gathering of the January Women’s March. Her father is FFRF Life Member Jim Helton, who is the organizer of the Tri-State Freethinkers.
Please welcome a freethinking feminist of Generation Z — Kelly Helton!
By Kelly Helton
“When equal rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up. Fight back. By attempting to defund Planned Parenthood, you have declared war on women. I am here to tell you that we are not damsels in distress tied to the tracks. We are the train!”
Those were the words I heard at the Statehouse in Ohio. I was there because I hid in the backseat of my dad’s car after my mom told me I couldn’t go because it was not safe due to counterprotesters.
When we got there and the counterprotesters barged in, my dad and I got separated and I ended up by the podium next to the senators. My dad was on the other side of the room. My mom saw me on the news with my dad nowhere in sight. He got in so much trouble, but I never did. At that moment, I decided I would no longer be silent and my voice would be heard.
At the next Planned Parenthood rally, I asked to speak. There, I told the crowd I did not understand why people wanted to defund Planned Parenthood, deny access to birth control, restrict abortion, or refuse to teach comprehensive sex education that was medically and scientifically accurate. In the end, I realized that it wasn’t me who did not understand those issues.
The real problem was that my legislators did not understand those issues.
My next opportunity came on International Women’s Day. I expanded on my original speech to cover pay equality. I asked the crowd the following questions: When I grow up, why should I get paid less for the same job that my brother does? Why should women of color get paid even less than me?
I then got an opportunity to do a speech for a Swiss TV special about the separation of church and state in American public schools. In my choir class, we were singing religious songs. I was not comfortable singing religious songs — and those songs shouldn’t have been there in the first place. My dad told me to talk to my teacher. And that’s what I did. My teacher did not want to make me feel uncomfortable. She knew who my dad was and didn’t want to get sued.
Stand up, speak out
In the end, she removed the religious songs. I wasn’t the only student who felt this way, but I was the only student who was willing to stand up and say something. It is amazing what one person can accomplish if they stand up for the rights of others and speak out for those who cannot.
I also had an opportunity to speak about atheism in front of the Tri-State Freethinkers. My call to action was this: In order to change the world around us, we must first let the people around us know who we are.
If I can stand up here and shout, “I am an atheist,” then perhaps you could come out of the closet so people realize they actually know an atheist. If everyone did this one simple thing, then maybe the next time I get on stage and shout, “I am an atheist,” no one will care. And how cool would that be?
Out of all the speeches I’ve done, the March for Science in Cincinnati was my favorite. Standing on stage and looking out into a crowd of over 10,000 people was an amazing experience. I will never forget it.
Learning the truth
Some of my past teachers, when talking about the big bang theory and evolution, have told us these are just theories and we can believe what we want. How can you teach something you don’t even understand?
If you are a teacher, here are some of the things we want to learn: The Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old (and it is not flat, either)! We want to learn about evolution from Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin, not Ken Ham.
Neil deGrasse Tyson says the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it. Humans are the main reason for climate change. Bringing a snowball to the Senate floor during winter does not disprove climate change.
We want to get our science information from scientists. We do not want your agenda, we do not want your politics, we do not want your beliefs. We want unadulterated science.
As a 13-year-old girl, I am often the voice of reason in a room of unreasonable adults. This became very clear to me on lobby day when I attempted to speak with some of my representatives.
I also do not stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. We are one nation indivisible. By adding God, you have instantly divided us. And not only in my classroom, but across the entire nation.
I realized something this year. If we speak out against injustice and speak up for equal rights, we can make a difference. We need all of you to speak up and speak out at your local school boards and city council meetings.
Individually, we can make a difference, but together, we can make a change!