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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.”

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