(In the photo, Mekhi Taylor proudly displays his s.t.a.r.t. t-shirt.)
South s.t.a.r.t. hosted a Unity Dinner for about 80 students, staff, parents and community members on Thursday, February 27th at South High. South s.t.a.r.t. was joined by students from the Minneapolis Youth Congress and from Southwest High School. Food was provided by Fat Lorenzo’s with a generous donation from the Rail Station in South Minneapolis. The South High Foundation paid for all of the dinner expenses through a grant to s.t.a.r.t. Amirah Ellison greeted everyone and shared the s.t.a.r.t. philosophy, to mobilize students to play their own role in closing equity gaps. Eva Shellabarger reviewed the student’s conversation guidelines with our guests.
Neil Cook opened our program a poignant dramatization of an untitled poem by the late American rap artist, Tupac Shakur:
“Please wake me when I’m free
I cannot bear captivity
Where my culture I’m told holds no significance
I’ll wither and die in ignorance
But my inner eye can c a race
Who reigned as kings in another place
The green of trees were rich and full
And every man spoke of beautiful
Men and women together as equals
War was gone because all was peaceful
But now like a nightmare I wake 2 c
That I live like a prisoner of poverty
Please wake me when I’m free
I cannot bear captivity
4 I would rather be stricken blind
Than 2 live without expression of mind.”
Kyra hood led an activity where dinner guests paired with someone they did not know to discuss what works and our opportunities at South High. The pairs wrote their reflections on Post-It Notes for our Wall of Opportunity. Reflections included that “South is a place where people can talk about race, privilege and institutional racism” and that “South student groups are strong and reflect a variety of interests.”
The students then shared two videos with their guests: the first, in which Australian comedian Aamer Rahman, in his YouTube Fear of a Brown Planet challenges why it is problematic to consider people of color as racists; and a YouTube with actor and comedian Chris Rock thoughtfully explaining how he has experienced white supremacy firsthand in his career.
Prior to discussing the videos, students Sophie Downey, Nila Brooks and Lamia Abukhadra reviewed a list of terms and definitions from critical race theory, including “critical race theory” itself, which refers to a theory that racism is pervasive, permanent and must be challenged; and the term “racism” itself, a belief system that upholds white supremacy, suggesting that physical traits mental abilities and creativity are genetically related, fixed and unchangeable.
Dinner guests then had table discussions about their own experiences with discrimination, what they would like to see changed at South, and how students (and the community) can play an active role in that change. Following the dialogue, individuals and groups shared highlights of their conversations, guided by Fatuma Abdi, Amirah Ellison and Lamia Abukhadra. Some of the ideas and solutions they discussed included:
• Not all ignorance is your fault—our systems can be designed to keep us unaware. Be aware of where you have influence and don’t take no for an answer.
• We need to use proper language to describe our immigrant populations. Somalian is not a word—we need to refer to immigrants from Somalia as Somali.
• We must be open to what we don’t know. White peers are afraid to offend people with what they don’t know. But there’s much research available, and we can be pro-active to learn beyond our comfort zones. We can all take time out of our busy schedules to learn new sides to this discussion.
• LISTEN—none of us know everything.
• White students often take offense to being called racist, because they don’t understand the depth to these issues and legacy institutional racism. As white people, we have to get over ourselves and commit to learning.
• Challenge our instructors and our teachers by sharing culturally-relevant literature that can open their eyes.
• There is a difference between equality and equity. We’re really after equity, where we provide structural supports for people’s needs to be met according to their needs. Whites have literally been given a pedestal to stand on, so they have been allowed to aim higher. We need to build those blocks of structural support for people of color to stand on.
• There are few systems of encouragement for people of color to be successful. We provide resources, before we provide incentives. We need to provide more incentives.
• We need to get rid of the notion that Black students can’t achieve. Period.
• There are many who say, “I don’t want to hang with white people.” But you have to hang with people to know them.
S.t.a.r.t. leader Kyra Hood wrapped up the dinner and thanked everyone for joining us. Following the event, restorative justice circle keeper Jamie Williams wrote a follow up note saying that “the dinner was one of the most heart warming and well-attended events I have ever participated in with MPS..it was a cold icy night and was still well-attended.” She thanked the students for their phenomenal work.
Students Mehki Taylor, Samira Mohamoud, Eva Shellabarger and Fatuma Abdi (featured here with Dr. David Stovall) spent the day at the Solutions in Action Student Summit hosted by the MN Minority Education Partnership and other community allies at the North Minneapolis YMCA.
Dr. David Stovall, our keynote speaker, is a national leader on developing culturally-relevant education and engaging students as leaders in education transformation. Dr. Stovall walked enthusiastically into the room and said to the students, “I bet you didn’t expect a professor to look like this!” As a young African American man, Dr. Stovall said he’d get “into trouble with his homies constantly” until he had a teacher who cared about him finally say, “Let’s just put it out in the street. Adults don’t have your best interests in mind. We’re here to prove them wrong!”
He told the students that in Illinois, he’s fighting laws that are so severe that 15-17 year olds caught with heroin can be charged with attempted murder because heroin can be considered lethal. He said that creating an “eighth hour” for students to learn is a matter of “life and death.” Because of the violence on the streets, no one knows when they leave “eighth hour” if they will make it back again.
Yet students, Dr. Stovall said, have always been at the heart of transformative social change. “There’s a difference between school and education,” he said. He pointed out that school has to do with order and compliance, while education is more about change and learning. “How,” he asked, “do we upset the set-up?” He encouraged the students to read “The Mis-education of the Negro” by Carter G. Woodson so that they can understand how our school system has been “designed to remind people of their worthlessness.” He told the students that one hundred years from now, the local testing companies will still own a lifetime contract to give students tests in Minnesota.
Dr. Stovall said that discipline is not just about following rules. It’s about taking care of ourselves. He was taught by his own teacher to “discipline yourself so that no one else has to.” He told the students that he still gets into trouble because he is challenging the school system and that sometimes he’s “uninvited” because folks might consider him to be too controversial. He said that if we’re not experiencing discomfort, we’re not really engaging in the true work. But, he said, “It’s time to get down. It’s our turn to have a business,” telling them it’s more important than ever that they engage in the true education of leading the fight for positive change.
On Thursday, February 6th, s.t.a.r.t. leaders Amirah Ellison, Nagma Garane and Kellie Winchell attend the “Missing Voices Conference for Culturally-Responsive Teaching” at St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis.
Our keynote speaker was Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Ladson-Billings proposes that our so-called gaps are not an accurate representation of the problem. Our problem, says Dr. Ladson-Billings, is that we have an education “debt” that we owe to descendants of slaves and First Nation people upon whose backs this nation was built, and who were denied access to reading and a proper education since the founding of our nation. The debt is moral, social and economical, she says, and we share responsibility for repaying this debt.
We did physical movement with dancer Kenna Cottman and listened to cultural narratives by storyteller Nothando Zulu. Attendees at each table were then invited to brainstorm what justice means to us:
A leap of faith—A JUMP!
That takes courage in action, a vision,
Hope, people coming together
To give everyone what they need
Shared power and true belonging.
Attendees divided into three groups: 1) educators and administrators; 2) students; 3) parents and community members. All were asked to share conversation and notes on what the morning dialogue meant to them and what actions they would like to take to play their own role in repaying the education debt.
The conference was an inspiration, and a reminder that the work of s.t.a.r.t.–to educate ourselves and one another about the “voices less heard”–is important work. Through this work, we not only reduce our collective debt; we honor the courage and example of those who have gone before us and who have brought us to a deeper understanding of justice and equity. The more we listen, the better able we are to repay the debt.
s.t.a.r.t. leaders Kiah Zellner-Smith, Saida Mahamud, Priyanka Zylstra and Nagma Garane shared a presentation about s.t.a.r.t. with youth at St. Clement’s Church on Wednesday, February 5th, 2014. The students began with a quote from St. Clement about identity: “He who knows himself knows God.” We discussed two important reasons to understand more about our own identity: 1) because we do not want to lose ourselves to become part of a larger cultural group; and 2) part of understanding who we are is coming to terms with the United State’s true racial past. We talked about the difference between “race,” a human construct that describes the diversity of humankind and “ethnicity,” which refers to the combination of physical and cultural characteristics (such as language, food and beliefs) that are common to a group of people.
The s.t.a.r.t. students led the youth from St. Clement’s in their “cultural narrative phone game,” through which students quietly pass a narrative around the circle to show–in the moment–how our own memory and interpretive lens inevitably distorts history. The students talked about what is kept and what is lost as we share stories, and how this type of process occurs every time we pass on information.
Priyanka talked with the students about how Helen Keller was viewed primarily as a person with disabilites, rather than a great leader with profound contributions, including her founding of the American Civil Liberties Union to fight for free speech. Saida talked about our cultural depictions of First Nation people, including the Massachusetts Bay Colony official seal, still in use. The Seal portrays Native American people as uncivilized and in need of help rather than as an independent and proud people with a rich cultural heritage. In fact, the European Americans did not want the Native people to acculturate–the Massachusetts legislature passed a law in 1789 prohibiting teach Native Americans how to read and write under the penalty of death. Nagma guided the students through a discussion about John Brown, the abolitionist who believed in armed revolt. Nagma showed how textbooks, depending on the time period and author, depicted Brown at different levels of sanity and insanity. This led to reflection to the controversial nature of historical figures, such as Malcolm X, who believe that violence plays a necessary role in cultural revolution.
Following their presentation, the students introduced St. Clement’s youth to the work of s.t.a.r.t., a student-founded and led network that advocates for students to play their own role in closing equity gaps.
Our evening ended with brief dialogue about how the youth can continue to talk about the importance of cultural sensitivity and perhaps explore an intercultural partnership with the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, also in the neighborhood. We discussed the possibility of students hosting a dinner or some type of event for the two congregations to come together.
The students greatly enjoyed their time together and valued the opportunity to talk honestly about issues of race that impact them. From their sharing, it was clear that they are listening carefully to their classroom narratives about the impact of colonization and slavery upon the United States today.
To conclude the student presentation, Nagma shared a very powerful story of her experience with her driver’s test. The first two times she was tested, she wore her hijab (or head scarf) and the examiner treated her disrespectfully, even yelling at her. The third time, she chose not to wear her hijab to see what would happen. To her surprise, the very same examiner not only treated her with greater respect and humor, but he also guided her a bit more through the test–which allowed her to pass. “I wonder,” she said, “how much it had to do with me not wearing my hijab.”
Following the presentation, Kiah and Priyanka shared their own reflections of our evening together at St. Clement’s Church:
Priyanka: “Walking into St. Clement’s, I was thoroughly impressed by their warm welcome and sense of community. We were there to talk about s.t.a.r.t. and race with the youth group. We always have a circle dialogue, creating an environment where everyone holds equal position and power. We started with a simple identity garden worksheet to begin the complex conversation of race. However, even this seemingly simple exercise provoked questions. We needed to define some terms like ethnicity. I have always been confused about the differences between race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. and I was not the only one. There is a gap in our education because we never take the time to discuss these terms. We pretend to be color blind and act like racism is in the past when the same systems of oppression are still at work, especially in the education system. We talked about our personal experiences to further understand the social structures we live in. Some could share stories of experiencing discrimination, others stories of witnessing it. The most common form of discrimination discussed was about how people of color are treated in stores. I was surprised at how even young children caught on to this everyday injustice. If this form of racism is so common and blatant, what are we teaching our children?”
Kiah: “I hadn’t done a training for workshop with s.t.a.r.t. for quite some time. Because you never really know what your audience is going to be like it can be a little nerve-wracking entering a new space- especially when you’re talking about something as contentious as racism. Not long after doing the initial warm-up exercises though the students were already comfortable and chatting away. They asked questions about certain parts of the Identity Garden, like what “ability” meant, which demonstrates how invisible some of our privileges are. They asked great questions about the differences between “race” and “ethnicity” and together we interrogated such confusing and nuanced categorizations. While in the beginning most of the students said they don’t talk about race much, once we gave them the floor they demonstrated profound levels of observation and insight. Overall I had a very positive experience at St. Clements. Doing workshops like this is rewarding not only because you get to help others on their own journey, but also because they help you along yours.”
S.t.a.r.t. students Lamia Abukhadra, Amirah Ellison, Kyra Hood, Loren Towle and Shira Breen presented their workshop “Youth Telling: Why We Need to Get it Right (Not White)” on Saturday, November 16th at the 2013 Overcoming Racism Conference. S.t.a.r.t. members Vivi Grieco, Etta Harkness-Bartholdi and Eva Shellabarger also attended the workshop. This year’s conference theme was “Truth Telling.”
Lamia opened the presentation with an overview of s.t.a.r.t., sharing that s.t.a.r.t. has a focus of encouraging self-pride and understanding of one’s own racial identity along with valuing the cultural assets of others. She used an image of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s current seal, adopted in 1780, as an example of how historical myths still perpetuate racism. “In the photo,” Lamia said, “you have your stereotypical American Indian man saying ‘Come On Over and Help Us’ to the white settlers.” She pointed out that in reality, the settlers didn’t want the Native people to acculturate—they passed a law in 1789 prohibiting teaching our Native people how to read or write under the penalty of death.
Students Amirah Ellison, Shira Breen and Kyra Hood talked more about distortions in textbooks. Kyra described how Helen Keller was presented as a person with a disability more than she was understood to be a radical socialist who helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union to promote free speech. Amirah made the audience laugh as she talked about how John Brown—the abolitionist who believed armed revolt was the only way to defeat slavery—was visualized and described at different levels of sanity, having slowly regained his sanity in our present time (even though he’s dead)! Amirah also talked about how the ethno-centrism in our Thanksgiving tradition actually censors cultural narratives: Frank James of the Wampanoags was selected to give a speech, but when he wrote truthfully about the genocide of his people and how their way of life and language were decimated, they would not allow him to speak. Finally, Shira spoke to how we take events of consequence such as the Gettysburg Address, and rather than seek to understand their deeper content, focus instead on trivial details such as Lincoln’s handwriting.
Loren spoke to the importance of finding pieces of literature like The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell that bring humor along with perspective to the study of history. He shared an excerpt of the book, describing English Protestant theologian Roger Williams as having “seemingly teenager behavior—past his tendency toward fussy and abrasive theological scrutiny, past his loopy Christian navel-gazing, past his grating inability to make any of the small, charitable compromises in getting along with other people.” Loren pointed out how even in such a thoughtful and creative approach, the author was sensitive to cultural details, but still discounted youth by describing Williams’ approach as “teenage” behavior!
The students moved to the next part of their session, an opportunity to watch how, in the moment, we distort cultural narratives as we pass the story and details through our own cultural lens. The workshop attendees broke into two groups to play the “phone game” with an edit of Dr. Tom Peacock’s personal memory from his book To Be Free: Understanding and Eliminating Racism. (Thanks to Afton Historical Society press, the publisher of To Be Free, each workshop attendee was given a copy of the book to take home.) Following the quiet passing of the story, attendees considered how their own values and perceptions played into how they chose to pass on the story. They talked together about how it felt to be the teller—then to “receive” the story. They also discussed how the story shifted as it was passed, becoming smaller but holding onto just a few details and lessons from the original narrative. After each group completed the activity, the full group of attendees came together to talk about the true story. In the story, young children who bully one of Dr. Peacock’s peers grow up to become the city leaders, while the young girl bullied died young. When hearing the story, most tend to assume that the young girl committed suicide and that the city leaders have remained corrupt. However, in reality, the young girl died of an illness (most likely an outcome of historical trauma). And Dr. Peacock, in a conversation with Amirah, told her that the city leaders learned from their abusive behavior and grew up to become thoughtful leaders.
The students wrapped up their session by a discussion of ways that teachers can make classroom lessons much more engaging for youth. They urged teachers to have students seek information from many sources, to use the power of story to bring depth to cultural lessons and to encourage students to critique their own lessons and what they are learning.
Towards the end of the workshop, one of our workshop attendees, Nekima Levy-Pounds (the Conference’s keynote speaker on Friday, November 15th) told the students that their work was very powerful and should be adopted in every school. Another attendee said, “We have to get you in front of an audience of 30-50 teachers, so that you can share this material with them!” Also exciting was that people who did not attend our workshop stopped by to get copies of our materials. The students had a great experience and are having success with teaching the public one of their core values: the importance of student-led efforts to inform cultural competence in teaching!
On Wednesday, November 13th, Jessie Miller, a sophomore at the U of M, catered pizza to South s.t.a.r.t. and engaged 35 students from South s.t.a.r.t. in co-designing teaching curriculum for Na’im Madyun, Associate Dean in the U of M’s College of Education and Human Development. Jessie had participated in the s.t.a.r.t. workshop led by Junior Loren Towle and Senior Kyra Hood at the 2nd Annual Social Justice Fair at South High on Friday, October 18th. The racial identity curriculum for teachers will be used throughout the state by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP).
Our evening began with a warm-up exercise designed to take a pulse on student interests. We all stood together in a circle, and Jessie began by asking students if they had ever been discriminated against by a teacher. Students who had been discriminated against left their place in the circle, switching places with one another until one person was left in the center. That person then asked a question, and the game continued for several rounds.
After that, Jessie used teaching methods from the College of Education to guide students into discussion groups. Once students formed groups, Jessie gave them each an age group within elementary, middle school and high school, asking them to come up with ideas for curriculum that would help them better understand their racial identity. After a half hour, students used the “butterfly option” to move between groups and “cross-pollinate” the dialogue with new perspectives.
To wrap up our evening, students shared their innovative ideas for developing curriculum, from including engaging student cultural narratives and artwork in classrooms to bingo and card games that emphasize important contributions of persons of color.
Following the workshop, Jessie Miller lauded the students for their competence in addressing such challenging issues. “S.t.a.r.t. students are close to the issues of racism in our education system,” Jessie said. “That makes them very qualified to solve the problem.”
South High s.t.a.r.t. and Anwatin Middle students joined together for the YWCA’s 11th Annual It’s Time to Talk Dialogue about Race.
The guest speaker was Andrés Tapia, author of “The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity.” Mr. Tapia began by telling a crowd of over 1300 business and organizational leaders, including our students, that “diversity is a mix, but inclusion is making the mix work.” He spoke to how creating inclusive systems in the workplace and addressing issues of race are “one of the hardest things civilization must do.”
“RACE STILL MATTERS,” Mr. Tapia repeated as he projected the words in all CAPs on the overhead projector. He proceeded to share statistics to demonstrate stubborn opportunity gaps in our country. He reminded us that our educational equity gaps, especially for Latino and African American students, are the highest in our country.
“Who would you trust to take care of your children?” Mr. Tapia asked us, as he showed a photograph of Geoffrey Canada, the African American founder of the Harlem Achievement Zone, and another photo of a young white woman in a graduation cap, who went on to become a convicted murderer.
“Now,” said Mr. Tapia, “to be a minority is to be a majority. In 50 of our U.S. cities, the majority of residents are people of color. In 10 of our U.S. states, white men are a minority.” He pulled up a slide showing the estimated buying power of groups that have historically been marginalized in the U.S.: 1) Blacks at $1 trillion; 2) Latinos at $1.2 trillion; 3) Asian Americans at $718 billion; 4) amount of LGBT buying power at $billion; and 5) that of people with disabilities at: $1 trillion. He reminded business leaders that they don’t want to be alienating their customers.
In addition to knowing that minorities are quickly becoming the majority, Mr. Tapia urged us to “own our biases.” He proceeded to point out the many types of tensions fueled by racism, including Latino-on-Black racism, Asian American-on-Black racism, the MN gaps and other types of colorism in every community, where people of lighter skin are valued more than those with darker skin. “We lose moral authority when we do that,” he said.
“We have to share our stories,” he said. Latinos, as one population, will comprise 25% of Americans by 2025. They represent over 1/3 of those living in California, half of the babies born in Texas, 9/10 of those born in New Orleans and 1/2 of the recent population growth in the U.S.. “57% of Latinos prefer to speak English,” he added, “and 16% of young Latinos self-identify as white, compared with 30% of adult Latinos.”
Mr. Tapia pointed out that inclusion is a skill, not an attitude, and that there are equally compelling studies to demonstrate that increased diversity can improve or impede an environment. Over time, the research has proven that the difference lies in how diversity is managed. “Greater diversity, when managed well, leads to greater creativity and productivity,” he said. “The key is in the words: when managed well.”
Andrés Tapia ended his talk by saying that we must not let anyone take away our rights, and that we must learn to stand up for the rights of others. He gave the example of the Rockwell Automation Project, the mission of which is to “equip white men to play a central role in creating inclusion without relying on women and people of color.” He pointed out that it’s an opportunity for white men to own their collective privilege.
At our table dialogues, we continued to reflect upon Mr. Tapia’s presentation, talking between us about why it is challenging to talk about race, how we confront racism when we see it and what we plan to do to in our lives to address the issues. At our table of students, one student reflected on “hipster racism,” and the ways that some youth can use irony to mask racism. She added that getting peers to talk about race is challenging, especially when they can’t recognize their privilege and have the advantage of not having to think about it. Collectively, we agreed that talking about race is an important step towards bringing issues to light in our school community so that we may address them. For that reason, It’s Time to Talk was an unforgettable opportunity to receive support for our work. It was thought-provoking and also daunting to face together the change we still must be and must see. Yet, knowing that over 1300 people, committed to dismantling racism, were in the room with us was a huge inspiration–and left us dreaming of as many ways as possible to bring the message home.