After a day of discussions about race for students and staff at the high school, around 80 parents attended a 21st Century Fund-organized conversation, entitled “What’s The Big Idea?” The first event of the night was named Courageous Conversations: Students Voices on Life at BHS.
As parents were walking in, a slideshow was projected, featuring headlines from the Sagamore’s articles on race and the list of demands students wrote that are currently hanging in the atrium.
The event began with a poem by senior Hannah Timmermann entitled “How to tell your racist step-father that you held hands with a Black boy.” Her last spoken line was “He’s the only one who makes me not afraid of what you are about to say.”
After Timmermann, Headmaster Deborah Holman thanked parents for coming and for the Fund for organizing the event. She told parents that she would repeat what she had said to students in the Tell Your Story assembly during B-block.
“The Day of Courage is a special day because we hear voices that make us think,” Holman said. “The Brookline community has been called upon to be better. Brookline High School has the chance to be the best it can be.”
The next speaker was Diane Cheren Nygren who framed the conversation and explained some terminology such as “microaggressions.” She elaborated on the different levels of racism such as: interpersonal, microaggressions and institutional/systemic racism.
Next, a video clip was shown, featuring seven students reciting their speeches at the Asking for Courage day and the Martin Luther King Jr. Assembly. Senior Lea Churchill was the first in the video, reading the same speech she presented at the B-block Tell Your Story assembly. She mentioned the “fetishes that surround White girls.”
Senior Manjot Singh also recited her speech. She said she feels like she can neither fit into American social norms nor her Indian family. For example, she said, when she asks her mom not to throw her apple core on the freeway, her mother calls her American.
Senior Isaiah Milton spoke about the importance of the African American Latino Scholars Program and how glad he was when AALSP Director Christopher Vick talked to students of color in his grade school, for he felt that he was finally getting recognition for his hard work. When he was a child, he learned that, as a Black student, he would have to work twice as hard to get the same level of recognition as a White student.
In sophomore Komal Wasif’s speech from the F-block Tell Your Story assembly, she compared her experiences as a Pakistani in many different areas of the United States, such as Washington, D.C., Alabama, New York and Massachusetts. She thanked social studies teacher Ben Kharl who sent her “articles and videos, where he would encourage [her] to express my opinion.”
Senior Kerimal Suriel Guerrero began her speech previously given at the MLK assembly by telling the audience that she was finally going to be honest. She asked everyone to acknowledge privilege’s existence and encouraged students of color to take advantage of the education they are getting in Brookline, in order to make a change in the world.
Senior Hal Triedman gave the same speech as he did during the MLK assembly. He told the audience that he was racist for passively benefitting from the institution of racism and not “swimming against the current of passivity,” which he later encouraged the audience to do at the end of his speech.
Senior Donnaya Brown was the last student in the video. She told the audience that no one is too old or too young to have conversations on race and ended by saying “my generation has a voice, and we plan to use it.”
The leaders of the event then began a forum with a panel, consisting of parents and Brookline residents Alicia Hsu, Scot Huggins, John Laing, Lisa Lisi and Charlotte Mao; social studies teacher Malcolm Cawthorne and Holman.
The first question was in regards to students asking Holman to change her title of “Headmaster.” She said that it wasn’t actually students who asked for the change, but that she has created a proposal in Lunch and Learn and is willing to change the title if it is hindering her ability of collaborating with students.
The second question was about the plans for hiring a more diverse staff. Holman answered by saying that there have been two recruiting events of near 60 attendees, in order to build relationships with future staff members of color. She told the audience that there are currently 15-20 teachers of color at the high school, consisting of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans.
The next question was about the reasoning behind the first three speakers at the event being White. Nygren answered by saying that those currently in the position to create this event are White, but that these types of race conversations are in place to change that.
A parent asked a question about the social segregation of Black and White students at the high school. Huggins said that this type of clustering helps students of color build confidence, come together and feel pride. Cawthorne also replied to this question. He said that a difficulty that may arise in clustering is that it leaves social and academic groups predominantly White, whereupon the teacher is still made to have one-sided conversations around race.
Questions about the African American and Latino Scholars Program were asked. For example, a parent asked why it only has students of color in its honors level classes. Cawthorne said that it was the original inception of the program, which was to bring promising students and give them the support they need to succeed.
A parent later asked what defined being “of color” and why Whites are not considered a part of this group, to which Cawthorne replied, “The idea of everyone being of one color or colorblind is disingenuous and denies my history. That’s what makes me what I am.”
Mao said that it is important that parents talk to their kids about race and identity so that they know they do not have to face the confusion alone. Hsu said that it is crucial for parents to understand that each student encounters different hindrances in life, although they all end up sitting next to each other in the same classroom, working on the same problems and taking the same tests as one another.
The recent incidents at the high school, such as the Kahoot situation, were brought up. Holman said that educationally, they are dealing with these incidents by putting a spotlight on them and making it apparent that inappropriate and offensive language is inexcusable. Inappropriate use of technology, which is a new medium that teachers need to learn how to regulate, is also being reprimanded.
The last question was in regards to the sophomore pilot class and if there would be a requirement for taking a racial awareness course to graduate. Holman said there are three different ways that the administration could incorporate more race-related discussions in the school. She said that administration could implement conversations in advisory, but, according to Holman, this would not work because there are other things that need to accomplished during that time period. There could also be classes that students are required to take in order to graduate. Also, the five departments at the high school, English, Math, Social Studies, World Language and Science, could incorporate discussions on race more often.
The next event hosted by the 21st Century Fund will be a “Speakers Panel on Racial Equity in Education” on April 4.
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