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I’m More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test

October 23, 2014
Saida Mahamud, Mekhi Taylor and Loren Towle present their workshop "I'm More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test."

Saida Mahamud, Mekhi Taylor and Loren Towle present their workshop “I’m More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test.”

On Friday, October 17th, Loren Towle, Mekhi Taylor and Saida Mahamud, as leaders from the s.t.a.r.t. network, presented their workshop “I’m More than a Score: Putting Equity to the Test” at the 3rd Annual Twin Cities Social Justice Fair. Nagma Garane and Sara Osman were contributors to the project but unable to attend the Fair. Loren, Mekhi and Nagma are all seniors at South High School in Minneapolis. Sara Osman is a sophomore at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and Saida a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. Sara and Saida were former Co-Chairs of s.t.a.r.t. at South High School.

After introducing themselves, the leaders told the 25 workshop participants that they would be taking a “Community Test.” (The test was created by the workshop planners to exaggerate bias and show how it often appears in standardized tests. A few of the questions were taken from actual tests.) Saida told the participants that the test was easy, and they could expect to do well on it. If they didn’t, however, they would be expected to take it again.

Test questions purposely highlighted the different forms of bias. For example, to illustrate socio-economic and class bias, one actual test question asked students to choose which item was not a fruit based on whether or not it had seeds.

See if you can identify other biases in a few of the questions that the students included on their test:

1) Who were Mary Louise Smith, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Aurelia Browder?
a. They were the first African American students to graduate from Little Rock High School in Arkansas.
b. They were the four girls who were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama was bombed.
c. They were all women who marched from Selma to Montgomery.
d. They were all women who refused to give up their seat on a bus before Rosa Parks.

2) When considering what it means to be Muslim or Arab, the following statements are true :
a. 20% of the entire world’s Muslim population is Arab or North African.
b. 61.9% of all Muslims do not live in the Middle East.
c. 10 percent of the world’s Arab population is Christian.
d. All of the above are true.

3) What is the maximum characters (including spaces) allowed in a single tweet?
a. 55
b. 90
c. 140
d. 120


The students went over the different kinds of bias and then shared a TED Talk by Oklahoma State University Provost Bob Sternberg called “None of the Above: Why Standardized Testing Fails.” To view the TED Talk, see:

They then shared a PowerPoint they prepared from the perspective of being raised as “Children of No Child Left Behind,” or NCLB. They pointed out that as youth of NCLB, they constantly compare themselves to test scores; they wonder if the tests hurt those they’re designed to help most; and they wonder how much the tests reflect cultural and other biases. They defined bias as: the pattern of information presented in such a way that results in very different performance by individuals who have the same ability, but perhaps different ethnic, sexual, cultural or religious groups.

Saida pointed out that there are still many textbooks and cultural artifacts that reflect bias (such as the currently used Massachusetts Bay Colony Official Seal from 1780 that shows a Native American man saying “Come over and help us” to rationalize colonization). Because of this, our tests are inevitably steeped in bias that must be critically examined in order to close equity gaps.

Mekhi pointed out the different types of bias, including bias with gender, culture, regional, ethnic and racial, language, socio-economic and bias impacting students with special needs.

Loren reviewed the history of test bias, discussing how tests were used: to sterilize poor performers in the 1900’s; to rig immigration quotas and rank ethnic groups in the 1920’s; and more recently, to institutionalize deaf children, discriminate against women and alienate teachers of color from the profession of teaching. He also talked about “stereotype threat,” the self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to students performing as expected.

The students offered their own solutions to test bias, including training test evaluators to view the assessments through a cultural lens and inviting more teachers and students to help design policy.

To end their workshop, the students took comments from the workshop participants. One attendee said that colleges will lose valuable skill sets if they don’t learn how to assess students’ empathy, teamsmanship, sense of responsibility and cooperative abilities. Another student said that she has been “so lost in the pressure of doing well that she doesn’t remember most of what she’s learned.” Another pointed out how she generally did well on tests, but that didn’t help her with the ability to effectively manage on-line learning. A teacher spoke to how “tons of money” is being diverted to time and staffing for test preparation, but that many students are “giving up before they even take the test, and that not learning is one strategy they employ.” A parent raised a concern that her child might be punished if he chose to opt out of testing. Another adult said there was legitimacy to that, as Native American students who receive federal funding in Wisconsin are being threatened if they opt out of testing. As a final comment, a student participant ended the workshop by saying that whatever we do, we need to develop “intensive race consciousness.” She said that “race is a key issue here”–and that identity work with students was critical in moving forward.

Test Results:
1) This is an example of cultural bias, this time in favor of students who have studied history with a critical lens. The correct answer is d) women who refused to give up their seat on a bus before Rosa Parks, to illustrate that there were many actors involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and that Rosa Parks was carefully chosen as the best candidate to symbolize resistance to segregation.

2) The correct answer is d) all of the above. This is an example of religious bias to shed light on our assumptions about people from Arab regions and geographies where the Muslim faith is practiced.

3) Here the answer is c) 140, reflecting an age bias, as young people who have grown up with technology are more familiar with Twitter.

4) This question illustrates a special needs bias, as the question would be a challenge for creative thinkers, or people with dyslexia. If one were to strictly count F’s, the answer is nine. However, some test takers will see the F’s within the E’s for a total of 24 F’s. When a teacher complained that this should not be an issue given that an “E” is an “E,” and an “F” is an “F,” the students said, “But we’ve designed the test so we get to determine the answer.” One of the adults in the workshop said that any answer would be invalid: because the phrase did not have a period at the end, it’s not a sentence!

S.t.a.r.t.: Youth Action Retreat and Other Accomplishments

May 27, 2014

S.t.a.r.t.: Youth Action Retreat and Other Accomplishments

S.t.a.r.t. culminated the 2013/14 school year with three powerful events that highlight both the potential and the influence of our work.

May 22, 2014: Youth Action Retreat

Students in the photograph above were planners for the first “Youth Action Retreat” hosted on May 22, 2014 by St. Mary University’s Culturally-Responsive Teaching Program and the Minneapolis Public Schools. S.t.a.r.t. students Kellie Winchell, Amirah Ellison and Nagma Garane played a strong role in helping to convene planning sessions and engaging student leaders from Edina, Southwest and Washburn High Schools. We also worked in collaboration with student performers and change agents from the group Voices for Change, graduates from Anoka-Hennepin area schools.

Approximately 125 students from two middle and six high schools came together with the overall objective of networking among groups working for racial justice, sharing ideas, training one another to create sustainable and realistic action plans and leaving the retreat with an action plan and toolkit for the 2014-15 school year. Students worked individually, in their school groups and across schools to talk about ways they could work constructively to close equity gaps within their schools.

In the first hour of the retreat, s.t.a.r.t. students Kellie Winchell and Amirah Ellison guided students with a mix-it-up activity in which students found “someone they could learn from or teach about” using questions about equity, such as “What is racial equity?” or “What was the Civil Rights Act of 1964?”

S.t.a.r.t. student Nagma Garane worked with Southwest High School senior Tamera Larkins to teach the retreat attendees about the “Iceberg of Student Voice,” a concept adapted from John Gerber’s “The Iceberg: A Tool for Guiding Systemic Thinking” and questions provided by Voices for Change leaders Stephon Rene, Amarachi Alaike, Isaac Ewumi and Kirsten Alfaro. Students were paired with allies through a “musical circle” exercise using Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” With their partners, they explored such tip-of-the-iceberg questions as:

• “How is student voice being used?” and
• “Which voices are heard?”

They also answered below-the-water questions, such as:

• “Which voices are unheard?”
• “What are the barriers against student voice?” and
• “How do we disrupt this pattern?”

Nagma and Tamera also introduced students to a “Power Mapping Exercise,” through which they were to reflect upon influencers in their school environments (other student groups, teachers, staff, parents, community members, media, etc.) and where to “map” them in a grid that considers axis such as which are the most powerful and strongly support student objectives and which strongly oppose the objectives or are least influential.

Using beat box, hip hop and spoken word, the Voices for Change students guided the students throughout the day with individual creative reflection. Over the lunch hour, students wrote their answers to the prompt, “I will use my voice to….” The exercise inspired retreat attendees to create and share their own poetry and spoken word with one another.

In the afternoon, students paired with other schools and groups with similar goals to talk specifically about strategies for accountability and sustainability, considering what accountability looks like—and planning the meetings, check-ins and calls to keep one another informed.

Special guests to the Retreat included School Board candidate Iris Altamirano along with two Arab and 2 Palestinian leaders from Israel visiting the U.S. through the organization “Promoting Tolerance through Education.” The educational leaders joined us through a collaboration of s.t.a.r.t., the State Department and the MN International Center. One of the visitors, Ms. Nasreen Haj-Yahya said that the retreat was the most beautiful thing that she had ever witnessed in the United States!

The Youth Action Retreat ended with a performance by Stephon René from Voices for Change singing his song “Unknown Future,” with the line “We can overcome as long as we do it together!”

May 12, 2014

bushCONNECT: On May 12, 2014, s.t.a.r.t. leaders Lamia Abukhadra, Elek Harris-Szabo and Fatuma Abdi attended the day-long event bushCONNECT Inspire, Equip and Connect networking event with co-advisors Terrall Lewis and Kate Towle to strengthen connections across networks of community leaders. The event included change agents from 30 different partner organizations from the states of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The event opened with a live broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio featuring best-selling author Steven Johnson talking about his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.” Johnson opened by speaking about the adage, “Conference rooms are where ideas go to die,” introducing the themes of “surprising collisions” and how 15% of the time, innovations are born from a process of the “slow hunch,” with multiple periods of tinkering, trial and error, and what Johnson referred to as “failing forward.”

Johnson encouraged the audience to keep a “spark file,” a place where we can record and monitor our own good ideas and said that innovation also springs from an inner-vacation, or “ino-vacation,” where we learn to place ourselves outside of common practices (such as conference rooms) to experiment with our ideas. He said that in the process of innovation, there are many “ideas that stay wrong for too long,” including “cultural blind spots,” and that ironically, the only way past them is to develop a “certain tolerance for failure” within ourselves. Eventually, he pointed out, we get through the failures to the brilliant idea.

The day’s workshops were filled with brilliant ideas, from work sessions on “The Escalator Speech” and a crash course on “Improv,” to a collaborative mosaic project, mind/body yoga instruction and salons with local thought leaders (including Karen Diver, Chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Bank of Lake Superior Chippewa and Margaret Anderson Kelliher, CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association). Attendees were randomly assigned to salons and workshops, with the mix-it-up activity of negotiating for tickets from other attendees if they wished to attend a session for which they did not have a ticket.

The closing performance was an improvisational skit by actors from the troupe “The Theater of Public Policy” who performed a series of spin-offs from conversations and themes they had experienced throughout the day addressing the themes of innovation and “failing forward.” Leaders from the choral music organization “VocalEssence,” including their Founder and Artistic Director Philip Brunelle guided the entire audience in rounds and spoken word to keep us on our toes right until the end. To wrap up the day, s.t.a.r.t. student Lamia Abukhadra had an artist complete her “Career-cature,” an artistic profile of the career paths Lamia is likely to take as she continues to develop herself as a leader.
We are grateful to Michael Bischoff of the Social Innovation Lab for extending this invitation to the 2013/14 co-chairs of s.t.a.r.t. for their courage and commitment to leadership with intercultural bridging in our schools and community.

April 9, 2014

On April 9, 2014, s.t.a.r.t.’s Co-Chair Kyra Hood received a 2014 PeaceMaker Award for herself and for s.t.a.r.t. as part of Minneapolis Youth Violence Prevention Week. The Award is voted upon by representatives of the Minneapolis Health Department, Minneapolis Public Schools and PeaceMaker Minnesota to individuals and organizations whose work is focused on promoting peace and preventing violence in our Minneapolis schools.

During the 2013/14 school year, Kyra has acted as the Liaison to bring students together across cultural ethnicities and student groups. Kyra also presented the s.t.a.r.t. model to adults in a workshop entitled “Courageous Conversations for Nice Minnesotans” for the organization “Creating Resolution.” She also took on the commitment of presenting a workshop at the Twin Cities Social Justice Fair in October 2013. Kyra’s communication with educators following that workshop resulted in an invitation for s.t.a.r.t. students to co-develop teaching curriculum for the Associate Dean in the U of M’s College of Education and Human Development. Finally, Kyra co-presented a workshop entitled “Youth Telling: Why We Need to Get it Right (Not White)” at the Overcoming Racism Conference. The commitment required extensive preparation, and Kyra received high marks by the workshop participants.

Through her work in s.t.a.r.t., Kyra has been a valued contributor and leader. Her ability to inspire both peers and educators has transformed not only her own school, but other schools and organizations. She has just been accepted into Penumbra Summer Institute for Theatre and Social Justice!

S.t.a.r.t. Unity Dinner 2014

March 6, 2014

S.t.a.r.t. Unity Dinner 2014

(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 was a cold icy night and was still well-attended.” She thanked the students for their phenomenal work.

Seeking Solutions Not Suspensions with Dr. David Stovall

February 14, 2014

Seeking Solutions Not Suspensions with Dr. David Stovall

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.

s.t.a.r.t. Students Attend 2nd Annual Missing Voices Conference

February 7, 2014

s.t.a.r.t. Students Attend 2nd Annual Missing Voices Conference

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:

Justice is:
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 Join St. Clement’s Youth for Race Dialogue

February 7, 2014

s.t.a.r.t. Leaders Join St. Clement's Youth for Race Dialogue

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.”

South s.t.a.r.t. Presents “Youth Telling” Workshop at the 2013 Overcoming Racism Conference

November 18, 2013

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!


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