Q&A with senior Donnaya Brown
Senior Donnaya Brown, who has led several in-school protests calling for action on racial equity, spoke with the Sagamore shortly after her first protest on Friday, Feb. 22.
When did the idea for this protest happen?
5:41 in the morning today. The past couple of days I’ve been waking up at 5:30 in the morning, I don’t know why, and I woke up at 5:41, and I was like, you know what, I’m going to sit in the atrium. I’m going to write something on a piece of paper, and I’m going to write something on a posterboard, and I’m going to sit. And whoever joins me joins me, and all I want to say is that I’m really waiting for change. And that’s it.
What time did you go to the atrium?
12:00. I end C-block at 12 and I don’t have any classes for the rest of the day. I was like, you know what, I’m just going to sit. On my piece of paper, I said who I was, why I’m here, and feel free to sit if you want to. If you don’t, that’s fine. You can just stare, smile, whatever. People just sat with me and told me that they’re here for me.
How many people came?
I’m guessing 100, I don’t even know. It was more than I thought. I had the initial thought that I was going to stand there by myself, and that I was going to be alone. If I sat in the atrium alone, I sat in the atrium alone. Because I want change. I had gotten cold feet about two minutes before, and I had the poster in my hands and I just said, ‘Donnaya, don’t do this, you’re making a fool of yourself’. But I said, ‘No, I’m not, because this needs to be done’. I didn’t even tell my mom about this and that’s probably bad, but we’ll see what happens. I went and I sat down and some people asked me questions, and this was before I went silent, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m just here’, and people said ‘How long are you here?’ and I said ‘Until the end of the day’.
Did you tell anyone else?
I told one person that I had the idea this morning, and I told them not to tell anyone that I said that.
What was it like at first?
It was nerve wracking. I sat there like, ‘God, I’m going to get expelled, I’m starting something’, and when people started to join me, someone leaned over and whispered ‘SWS is coming down’, and I love my SWS brothers and sisters, and when I heard that, I knew that that meant a wave of people. And when that happened, a bigger wave came down. And we were filling the stairwells, and I was just like, ‘holy crap, what did I just do?’ And my thought process was, ‘Donnaya, you really have gotten yourself into something that you didn’t know’, and I was scared, but then I was like, ‘This needs to happen’. And it did.
Were there points when there were more or less people?
People came and went. They stayed as long as they wanted, as short as they wanted. If they just wanted to read the piece of paper.
When did you go silent?
I thought of going silent beginning in the morning. I had written on my tape already, since this morning, and after I had already gotten a little bit of the word out, I was just kinda like, ‘alright, now is the time to put on the tape, now is the time to get to it’. The tape helped me because all the teachers were asking questions and I really felt like I just wanted to be angry, and I was like, ‘Donnaya, the issue is not with them it’s the structure that they’re a part of’. And working in Racial Reconciliation for the past couple of months has really taught me about structural racism, what do we do to dismantle it, why it’s there.
What were teachers asking?
Why I was here, what did I want to do, what change do you want to see. And for me, I hate those questions, personally. Because I’ve said as much as I wanted to say about what I want, and what I want to change and it just hasn’t changed. And I just feel like we’re on this spinning wheel because I keep saying what I want and nobody cares what I want.
How did administrators react?
Dean Meyer fully supported us, Dean Alexander supported us. Unfortunately the headmaster was not here, she just wasn’t here the entire day apparently. Which is fine, I don’t need her to have a protest.
Did people write the posters that were up around the atrium while they were there?
They wrote the posters while they were there. There was a time when there was a lot of talking, there was a time when there was no talking. There was a lot of good conversation. People just went up and did whatever they wanted. I don’t really care to read them. I don’t think it’s my job to read them. I think it’s the administrator’s’ job to actually listen to the students.
Did you get any negative responses?
Yes. I had a teacher tell the staff that this was destructive and unproductive, that this should have not gone on, that this was before midterms, it was very confusing and taking away from students’ learning, which is fine. One, she does have a point. Two… you’re part of the system, and if you don’t want this protest to happen, change the system. I didn’t tell these children to come down here, they came down here because they wanted to.
How did you feel?
I was nervous. When I saw a wave of people come, I felt emotional and started to cry because I was glad that somebody felt the same way that I did and somebody was feeling my pain and feeling that this needed to happen. I was angry that the questions that were asked were questions that have been asked for the past four years. I’m like, ‘you have the answers’. And at one time, I wrote on one of the big sticky notes that you have what we need, so act. And if you know what we need, stop asking because it’s going to be the same thing. I was happy that this many people came out, I was sad that something bad was said about it, which I understand. I understand now that not everybody’s going to be with you, and that’s one of the things that I’ve learned a lot from Dr. King and learning about him. And I started humming “We Shall Overcome” because that’s the song he used to sing when he sat in a jail cell. And it calmed me down and everybody started singing it and it made me feel better. I was surprised at who came out and who didn’t come out. There’s a quote from MLK that says, ‘At the end of the day, we’re not surprised by the destructive noise of our enemies, we’re surprised by the silence of our friends’. I definitely did take note who came out to support me, and I thank them all for that, and I realized that I have to change a lot of minds about why I sit and why you should sit and we we should continue to sit, and the meaning for me of peaceful protest.
What are you thinking about going forward?
I hope that this does not stop me from crossing the stage. I know that I’ve suddenly become a mudraker, in that I’m willing to set fire under some people’s butts and I love it. I know that I need to focus on school as well, I know that I have not been the best student in the world but I know that that shouldn’t stop teachers from telling me to do my best. I know that things are not going to change as fast as I want them to, but I don’t want to go another four years with the same crap that I went through.
Where have you found the most support?
In places that I didn’t think it was. When random people support me, and I look at them and I say, I didn’t think you would care about this. I know where my strong support structure comes from, but those aside they do have other lives and other stuff like this.
Did you know most of the people who came to the protest?
Some. I would say equal. I know faces, I don’t know names. A lot of them were underclassmen, which I was surprised to see, and a lot were freshman, and I was like, ‘Ok, there are freshmen that haven’t been here that long but they’re still standing up for it, and I’m proud of them’. It was a lot of White people. But whoever it is, white, black, yellow, red, purple, whatever, just because you sit here doesn’t mean it’s over, just because you say nothing doesn’t mean it’s over. And when I tell administration that they need to act, students need to act as well.
What kind of action do you want?
I just want to stop talking. I want to stop talking and start talking. And that means that we stop talking like, ‘Oh, Huckleberry Finn, what does that mean in today’s society?’. No, we need to have a serious conversation. Why do we still use the n-word? When did the n-word become a term of endearment to each other? Why do we allow certain people to say it and not certain people to say it? Why in some places in the country it’s okay, why in some places if you say it you get punched? That’s some real conversations we need to have. And we need to talk about why we don’t see teachers of color. And why we’ve been saying this for four years, we need teachers of color, we need teachers of color… I was talking to another teacher, and he said when he started the job fourteen years ago, there was a wave of African-American teachers, and then they slowly trickled out because they were pushed out. And it’s not just me that will benefit from a teacher of color. And that’s what I want to see change first. Second, I want to have real conversations. Not just T-block conversations with my sophomores, this dumb Advisory stuff. It does absolutely nothing. It doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t really have a serious conversation, it makes everybody uncomfortable, it even makes the teachers uncomfortable, because there’s no preparation, no training. Not everybody can talk about race as easy as people think it is. It’s not easy to talk about race. Nobody is going to get anything from a thing that came from Freedom Writers and a magical White lady. Nobody’s going to get anything from that. There is nothing good coming from that Advisory lesson, the stand-on-the-line one. It’s great that we acknowledge our differences, but we need to acknowledge why we hate our differences, and have a serious conversation about that.
Where have you found the most difficulty?
I’ve found the most difficulty in getting the runaround. ‘Donnaya, here’s a piece of paper with what we’re doing’, ‘Donnaya, here’s what we’re doing’, ‘Donnaya, here’s what we want to do, here’s what we have, here’s our action plan’. That action plan sits in an attic for 40 years and never does anything. I’ve lost faith in my administration, and it hurts. I’ve lost faith in Brookline, I’ve lost faith in Brookline High School, I’ve lost faith that Brookline actually cares about me. Because from what I’ve seen from different teachers, and I’m not saying every teacher is bad, but they don’t care if they pass or fail me, they don’t care if I fail, if something is hard, if something is challenging, they don’t care. They don’t care if I don’t feel comfortable in their room, they don’t care if I don’t feel comfortable asking them a question, they don’t care if I feel comfortable going to them. And for me being a young woman of color there are so many questions that I’ve had that I can’t really ask my mom, and the only person that I can go speak to is Ms. Ramos [English teacher Jenee Ramos]. And I love Ms. Ramos but that’s the only female teacher of color you have. And when a White student says, ‘I feel that way too’, I’m like, ‘no, you have several female White teachers to talk to, you just don’t know them’. And it’s not like I’m not getting to know my Black female teachers. I only have one. And I’ll cherish her till the day I die because that’s all that was given to me.
Looking forward to college and beyond, what are you thinking?
Oh, I’m going to an Historically Black College or University (HBCU). I can’t deal with White people anymore. I’m not saying that racism doesn’t happen there, I’m just saying that Brookline High School has deterred me from White people everywhere. And I feel like that’s so bad to say, but I just need to go where I’m celebrated and not tolerated. And for me, it’s sad that I’m more comfortable going down South where racism is blunt instead of going to school here where racism is sugarcoated, where racism is subtle, and when I say something about it it’s ‘it’s outdated’ or ‘I’m sorry that you feel that way, it wasn’t meant to be taken that way’.
Do you know what you want to study?
I want to study child psychology. The brain interests me, I want to see the way the brain works. I want to be a child psychologist. I feel like there are so many children that do not have the resources to go to a psychologist. One, moneywise, two, because there’s a stigma in the Black community that mental health is not a thing, and that’s wrong.
Do you have anything to add?
This isn’t the end. Brookline High School has not seen the last of me.