Asking for Courage Day 2017
December 6, 2017
On Dec. 5, the high school held its annual Asking for Courage Day, where assemblies throughout the day covered a wide plethora of topics about race, ethnicity and identity. See the Sagamore’s block by block coverage below. This is a sample of a few of the many events that made this day a powerful one.
Auditorium: Telling Your Stories
Seniors Salam Kasu and Michael Zimmerman introduced the first event in the atrium during the A-block which included seven student speakers describing their individual challenges involving identity and race. The opening speaker was Headmaster Anthony Meyers, who thanked the planners for organizing Telling Your Stories and emphasized the importance of creating the kind of community that we want to be in.
“We create the culture we want at BHS, and I know we create an empathetic one and one that resists all hatred,” Meyers said.
Junior Ranna Shahbazi was the first student to share her story. Returning from a class trip to Spain, she was singled out and questioned at the American airport.
“The first thing I was asked was, ‘Are you Persian?’” Shahbazi said. “‘Yes sir,’ I replied. Though every fiber of me is American, my Persian heritage is seen as the defining factor in circumstances such as this.”
The next speaker, junior Vishni Samaraweera, told the audience that she grew up hearing people say, “You’re pretty– for a brown girl.” Samaraweera talked about how society and media make people believe that the color of their skin determines how beautiful they can be.
Senior Anthony Saunders shared an original poem, ironically titled “A Beautiful Day.” It described the nightmares people in a ghetto might be greeted with on a normal day. Then, he described how the school system has made him, as well as other black students, feel inferior, even from a young age. Saunders reflected on how much more frequently students of color are called out and punished for even minor infractions of the rules than White students.
“My biggest fear is becoming a statistic,” Saunders said.
Junior Reece Carew-Lyons shared another poem.
“The box that you made is not where I belong,” she said.
According to Reece, people are categorized by their race and when someone doesn’t fit into the stereotypes of their race or ethnicity, they are accused of being fake.
The next story was from junior Rose Roustom. She shared the story of how her parents are Syrian and confronted some of the injustices that Americans present to Syrian refugees. Roustom said that some people act like refugees have to “deserve” their safety. Some people say that Syrians must become “convenient Americans,” when that’s not fair at all because Syrians are just people.
“We are just like us,” Roustom said.
Senior Brandon Chen told his story next. He said he is Asian-American but doesn’t fit Asian stereotypes. Chen said he feels almost as though he is betraying his race by not being a “stereotypical Asian.”
The concluding speaker was senior Yamanoutchy Estime. Yamanoutchy means mountain in Japanese, but Estime is Haitian. She said that her whole life, she has dealt with snarky comments about how her name doesn’t match her race. When she was younger, she didn’t like her name.
“My name is Romeo but my race is Juliet,” Estime said. “They will never be at peace with each other.”
Now, however, she embraces her name because it is part of her identity. Estime advised people not to negatively comment on other people’s racial identity.
“Speak with love,” Estime said, “because you reap what you sow.”
Black Box: Muslim Identity
The panelists of Muslim-Americans included two BHS students, sophomores Nafisa Sideeka and Zaid Shah, along with two juniors from Boston University, Lul Mohamud and Maryam Bendary-bu; they were joined by Sumaiya Zama, a youth empowerment coordinator at CAIR Massachusetts (Council on American-Islamic Relations), Shannon Al-Wakeel, a Muslim Justice League advocate, Nazia Ashraful the government affairs director at CAIR Massachusetts, and Zubeda Khan of (IM)WISE, a women’s accounting group for Muslim women.
In the first part of the presentation, the moderators showed two short videos to the audience. One was a short clip from Disney’s children’s show Proud Family about a girl who went to live with a Muslim family for a few days. In the clip, she proclaimed that even though there were some differences in culture, her own family and the Muslim family were ultimately very similar.
The next video was one made by CNN displaying various statistics about Muslim-Americans. Shah shared her reaction to one of the statistics depicting Muslim-Americans’ views on suicide bombing and justification of violence: CNN stated that 81% of Muslims are against suicide bombing and say that violence is never justified.
“Normally the consensus from Muslims throughout is that we don’t support these groups, we don’t have anything to do with these groups, and these groups are nowhere close to the meaning of Islam,” Shah said. “There is nothing related to Islam that terrorist groups are in, besides the name Islam. The I, the S, the A, the L and the M.”
Senior Iman Khan pointed out that the difference between culture and religion was often ignored, with religion, not culture, being blamed for terrorism. She said that terrorists were people who misinterpret or use Islam as an excuse or something to hide behind while committing hateful and violent acts not related to Islam.
Mohamud said that many first-generation Muslim-Americans struggle with the idea that, for many of them, America is the only country they know, yet it hates the countries that their families are from. She added that the ban had a devastating effect on a part of her family back in Somalia, and that it was impossible for her to just move on from it.
For Mouhamud, being stopped by police, living in fear and fighting to defend herself against hate was a daily, unbearably painful part of her life, along with all the racism and sexism she endures as a Black Muslim woman.
“It hurts. But it hurts in a way that, you feel pain but you can’t say anything. You have to smile through it, because god forbid that I show that I’m upset. That I’m an angry Black woman. Then I’m a radical. I’m someone who proves exactly what they’re thinking of me, that I’m not civilized enough to hold a conversation,” Mohamud said.
The panel continued to talk about the true meaning of hijab for men and women, and about wanting people to respect their clothing choices. They discussed sexism in the form of how people want to decide the amount of clothing women get to wear, and finally the issue of people’s hijabs being pulled off because of Islamophobia.
Most importantly, the panel as a whole emphasized that Muslim-Americans should be viewed as individual people, not statistics and stereotypes, and that being part of Islam is a really individualized experience.
MLK Room: Multiracial Awareness Workshop
During A-block, students and staff gathered in the MLK Room for a multiracial awareness workshop. As they entered, they were greeted by multiple stations exhibiting the multiracial or multicultural experience.
On one wall, photos of multiracial students and staff were scattered about. In that same corner, there were three poster boards with heartwarming photos of multiracial families. In addition, the opposite corner housed a table filled with books pertaining to the multiracial experience contributed by the library. A small nook presented both the history and films surrounding the multiracial community. Lastly, posters of two family trees were on display next to a column for post-it note comments from guests.
Videos made by multiracial or multicultural families played as viewers walked around observing the stations. In one video, senior Dougie Szeto discussed his experience with being White and Asian. He told the story of his Chinese grandmother making dumplings as his mother made matzah ball soup.
“I kind of thought it was a normal thing to eat dumplings with matzah ball soup, but it took me quite a bit of time to realize that’s not something that a lot of people get to do, and it was a really special moment for me,” Szeto said.
In the final portion of the event, a panelist of three multiracial families discussed their experiences. The three families were the Alibhais, the Parises, and the Harrises.
Former science teacher Irfan Alibhai discussed the advantage of multiple holidays in his family.
“I think one of the really neat things is that it seems additive. None of our holidays are in conflict, either time-wise, like on the calendar, or just how we think about them,” Alibhai said. “So it just seems like we get to celebrate everything.”
Senior Lena Harris spoke about the benefits of being a part of her mixed race family.
“What I love about our family is that I never really feel like I don’t belong because I look around and I just see so many different faces — even just like hair textures and things that other families don’t think about,” Harris said. “I think that because I’ve always been in this setting that’s diverse, I’ve also learned how to deal with a lot of different types of people and that’s helped me see the world in a really special way.”
Auditorium: From Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock
The “From Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock” assembly featured panelists Raquel Halsey, Kea van der Ziel, Chief Earl Burley and Virginia Lewis, three of whom are Native American, who spoke about a variety of topics that affect Native Americans in the United States. They spoke mainly about Native American history and life as a Native American in modern times. The importance of being educated about Native American history and issues was stressed at the assembly, as was the struggle Native Americans still have to fight constantly for both their land and their people’s rights.
Raquel Halsey, a Native American who grew up in D.C., but whose family is from North Dakota, has worked with Native issues in many different ways, including on Capitol Hill. She asked the audience how they would feel if someone came into their house uninvited. She went on to explain that that was the experience for Native Americans when white settlers invaded their land–land which they never got back.
“It’s not whose land was this, it’s whose land is this.” Halsey said.
Kea van der Ziel, who is not of Native American descent, is an active member of Brookline’s government system and created a successful warrant article proposing that Brookline change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s day. She recommended that audience members also educate themselves about Native American history, something which is often not thoroughly covered in American school curriculums. She also acknowledged her Caucasian heritage and declared that it was not her place to lead the way.
“Indigenous peoples need to and can lead the way. It is not my place to say what indigenous people want or need,” van der Ziel said.
Chief Earl Burley, a member of the Ponca tribe, discussed treaties he, his family and his people created and worked hard to maintain. He noted that seven billion acres of land were taken from his people.
Virginia Lewis, an acquaintance of Chief Earl Burley, emphasized the way the media portrayed Native Americans in the past, and encouraged students to be careful of media portrayal.
“It is worth getting to know people before we judge them by media,” Lewis said.
The event ended with students being given the opportunity to ask the panelists questions. When asked about life on the reservation, Halsey responded that the reservation is her home.
“We’ve been caring for those places for a long time and we’re going to continue to care for those places when the mining is done and when people who were interested in Standing Rock lose interest and move on to some other crises that faces this country,” Halsey said. “We’re still going to be there, and it’s going to be home for us.”
Black Box: BETCo Performance
The goal of BETCo’s performance was to bring to light common racist events in our high school, but also in the world.
Mark VanDerzee, who is the BETCo and Needs Improvment teacher, emphasized the fact that BETCo uses satire and humor to bring attention to important issues and that they stood together denouncing the videos that emerged last week.
BETCo performed seven short scenes, each of which played out a situation in which people were being discriminatory or racist.
The first scene featured senior Chloe Janes, senior Alec Shiman and junior Greg Kim. Janes and Shiman had invited Kim over because he was new in the neighborhood. Because he appeared Asian, Janes and Shiman were shocked when he said he came from Idaho and brought potatoes to the dinner. When Janes and Shiman shouted “Idaho?” at the end of the scene the crowd chuckled.
The second scene was representing two parents, senior Alexis Matuson and senior Hunter Amory looking to adopt a child. Senior Mayaviti Prabhakar, playing the adoption agent, went through several children. However, both parents only seemed immediately interested in the Asian child, calling her “exotic.”
The third scene featured students who had to come into school on a snow day for rehearsal. Senior Lena Pontes and junior Devasha Solomon played two girls who were complaining about a third group member who had not shown up. The girls then complained about how hard it was for them to get to the school from Chestnut Hill. However, when an additional scene member, played by senior Simon Ivcevic, intervened and said that Tom (their missing scene partner) lived in Dorchester and that is why he most likely could not make it, the scene went silent.
The fourth scene featured Kim and senior Romy Meehan. The two were at Starbucks. Meehan was named “Ashlyn” and was customizing her Starbucks order. Her date, named “Lee” and played by Kim, ordered a simple drink. When the barista, played by junior Luke Geller, asked Kim how to spell his name, Geller mentioned how exotic the name Lee was.
The fifth scene took place in a classroom. The teacher, played by Shiman, called on his student, played by Janes, to come up to the board. When Kim noticed it was naturally harder for Janes to write on the board because she is a lefty, he stood up for her and the students and teachers all concluded they would start a club to support left handed students. At the end of the scene, Solomon, who had no hands, sat left behind.
The sixth and seventh scene, which were related, featured a group of students talking about their history class, the theme of being exotic and the term of being “woke.”
The performance concluded with a discussion, in which audience members and BETCo members engaged in conversation about ideas that the scenes sparked.
MLK Room: Being Ñ
Ñ. “Enye.” A thriving, expanding and powerful community of over 16 million people in the United States. One of the fastest growing populations today, Being Ñ represents first-generation American-Born Latinos with at least one parent from a Spanish-speaking country. Denise Soler Cox, who has parents of Puerto-Rican descent but was born in Manhattan, created Project Ñ in order to generate dialogue about the themes of identity and feeling between two worlds that apply to Ñs nationwide.
Spanish teacher Astrid Allen, of English and Colombian descent, shared her own experiences of grappling with cultural identity. According to Allen, her blonde hair, blue-eyed appearance makes her Spanish speaking skills a pleasant surprise to most.
Allen also discussed the subtle racism that occurs even within her own family, because she received favoritism by virtue of having lighter skin than all of her sisters and cousins.
Allen then played an abbreviated version of the film “Being Ñ” by Denise Soler Cox, which explores her journey to understanding the themes of belonging and being “enough.”
After moving to an all-White neighborhood in Westchester county when she was 4-years-old, she experienced an identity crisis of being neither American enough or Puerto Rican enough.
Soler Cox was bullied in middle school because of her Puerto-Rican heritage.
“My phone rang, and I would pick it up and they would be like ‘spic,’ and I would just hang it up,” Soler Cox said.
Many Ñs in the film clip expressed an insecurity about not being able to speak Spanish well, or not being able to speak it at all. Soler Cox’s friend and co-creator of Project Ñ Guadalupe “Lupe,” Mones Hirt, often feels self-conscious about her ability to speak Spanish.
According to Mones Hirt, one of the things she regrets most is not teaching her kids Spanish. She feels a moral responsibility to continue her culture.
“I failed to pass on the ability to speak spanish,” Mones Hirt said, “If I don’t do it then it dies with me.”
After realizing that these experiences of wondering where you belong, being bullied and called names, and feeling moral responsibility to continue your culture are shared by so many, Soler Cox knew that she had to create the film in order to help and heal.
“I believe that this connection and sense of belonging can truly heal a generation,” Soler Cox said onscreen. “This is our story.”
Auditorium: Women of Color
“I am phenomenal.”
“I am a woman.”
“I am a woman of color.”
“I am a phenomenal women of color.”
Senior Tyra Pierre voiced these these inspirational declarations and dozens of women of color in the audience repeated them back, and the sound of the collective group’s confidence reverberated through the auditorium.
The assembly focusing on women of color featured students speaking about accepting yourself for who you are, accepting your own beauty and not letting anyone else define you, despite the actions of people and pressures that make this difficult.
Freshman Alexi Danesco spoke of the struggle of being half Black and half White when conflict erupts between these two races, as it did with the racist videos that have emerged in the past week.
Senior Juliette Estime spoke in a poetic and rhythmic voice of the societal pressures to change the way one looks and her own confidence in her appearance and strength.
“I am a beautiful Black girl. I was born with beautiful kinky hair. I walk with beautiful thin thighs and see through beautiful brown eyes. I walk with my shoulders held high, and yes, I come from strong roots,” Estime said.
These speeches continued, discussing meaningful and intense topics such as the favoring of lighter skinned people, the denial of one’s roots and prejudice, the injustice of power between men and women and the objectification of women.
The presentation ended with a dance performed by the advanced dance class of Mayra Hernandez. Dancers dressed in all black walked out onto a bare stage and elegantly struck a series of poses representing hope, loss, triumph, defeat and guilt while a poem was read in the background.
Black Box: Slam Poetry
The Slam Poetry event was headed by five students with varying levels of slam poetry experience. The speakers were joined by 2 alumni, Evan Cutts ‘12 and Jaime Serrato-Marx ‘16. The students performed poems of their own and one of another author’s, centering around themes of race, injustice and unification.
The even began with a warm welcome from junior Kaya Andrews. Andrews spoke about her own and other fellow speakers’ self-expression through poetry. By sharing their words, they were “sharing a piece of themselves” to provide insights from different perspectives. Andrews brought up the recent events regarding the racist videos, explaining that we needed to educate each other and learn from others.
The first poem, “This Year’s Brookline,” was performed by Jaime Serrato-Marx ’16, centered around present-day Brookline, specifically after the release of the racist videos. As a disclaimer, he expressed that he may not be the best person to speak about this issue, but it would be improper not to. The theme was focused on “spring cleaning,” how things bloom and then they die and how film will never be enough for events such as the recent walkout, “leaving only dust not scars,” because the truth can be changed and molded by others. Serrato-Marx ended with a note to the African-American Latino Scholars Program: “Keep fighting the good fight.”
Andrews followed, developing her thoughts on if her exclusion was based on her racial identity of being multiracial, referring to herself as “the black sheep in my sleep.” Throughout her poem, Andrews repeated the word “remember,” finally addressing the audience and asking them if they too would remember.
Senior Alexis Matuson expressed a story about being singled out, retelling a story from middle school about how another student asked how she could be Jewish due to the small size of her nose. Matuson went on to say, “To make my religion into a stereotype, that I do not fit into that box that you built, is a really bold move.”
Finally, Evan Cutts ’12 performed a poem he rewrote after being inspired by Dick Gregory, a civil rights activist and social critic. Stanzas of the it were threaded with innocent people’s lives that were lost.
“We will exist. As wind and water. Soil and blood. As sound, as light. As matter,” Cutts said. “We matter.”
MLK Room: Asian American Identity
Posters hung around the room showing statistics and examples of Asian representation in the media and addressing misconceptions of Asians as well as common stereotypes. Moderator and English teacher Kevin Wang asked the students in the room to visit the posters and write what they thought and any questions that they had on post-it notes. One of the posters spoke to the fact that it is largely believed that many South Asians, especially women, are forced to have an arranged marriage by their parents, which is completely untrue with many opting for “love marriages” or meeting potential spouses their families have chosen before picking someone.
During the panel discussion, Junior Rose Rostoum talked about how Billy Magnussen, a Caucasian actor, has made it into the cast of Aladdin.
“He’s been given a role in the upcoming live-action Aladdin movie for reasons unknown to me,” Rostoum said. “I’ve never seen a movie with a cast of Middle Eastern people that’s completely Middle Eastern, and I thought Aladdin, here it comes! This is my chance! Right? It was not my chance. That dream died.”
The panelists also mentioned that Asia includes more than just China, Korea and Japan. There are many people who may not know that countries like Iraq and Afghanistan are part of Asia, since they’re not often associated with Asia in the media.
Junior Vishni Samaraweera spoke about how people sometimes mislabel her ethnicity because she doesn’t fit the look of what is commonly thought to be Asian.
“For me it’s frustrating, because I’m not east Asian, and people call me ‘fake Asian,’” Samaraweera said.
Panelists discussed their frustration and dismay when asked, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”
Senior Dougie Szeto said that he replies to the question, “What are you?” with a simple answer: “I would just say I’m human, and dismiss it.”
Auditorium: Telling Your Stories
Once again, students shared their personal stories about race and racism.
Junior Ranna Shahbazi and senior Anthony Saunders introduced the program. They first took a moment to thank all of the people in the crowd who had volunteered to help put together the Asking for Courage day.
Senior Michael Zimmerman started off the final round of speeches for the day. He explained his background of being half-White and half-Mexican, and how he was once told that he was fortunate he could write this on his college application.
“I’m not a White person with the privilege of being Latino,” Zimmerman said. “I am Latino, and I’m proud of it.”
Next to the podium was sophomore Saya Ameli. She described her childhood, marked with the fear of talking to other people. It was the bravery of her mother and other Iranian women that gave her the pride to find her voice.
“I can’t point to exactly when the fear gave way to courage, but I know that it wasn’t just me,” she said. “I had a whole country at my back, motivating me to take my next step, pushing me to stand up for what I believe in and to stand up at all.”
After Ameli came senior Eva Earnest. She talked about the difficulties of being multiracial and the confusion she felt about her identity.
“I wasn’t Asian enough, but I wasn’t white enough either,” Earnest said. “The constant feeling that my race wasn’t ‘enough’ for others, only left me feeling like I, myself, wasn’t enough.”
Junior Richard Desir spoke next. He explained what the impact is like of having parents that did not grow up in the United States. From the food he ate to the curfews he had to follow, his Haitian family had many influences on his life, Desir said, and having friends that understand this background is helpful for him.
“Being a part of the first generation of my family to be born in the United States, I feel it is especially important in the times that we live in today for everyone in this very room to find someone they can connect with culturally,” Desir said.
In senior Angie Li’s speech, Li chronicled her switch in mindset from wanting to fit in to the white majority when she was younger, to wanting to stand out from the Asian stereotype upon entering the high school.
“I was viewed as assumptions and checkboxes,” Li said. “I was seen as a member of a collective group rather than a separate individual.”
Senior Paria Reich described how others have chosen to ignore her Iranian ancestry because she more closely resembles her German side. She addressed those in the crowd who have encountered a similar struggle to hers.
“Your sense of self will always be a confusing journey regardless of how simple it seems on the outside. There is a need to understand that we exist in more than one world,” Reich said. “Be true to yourself, and don’t let anyone tell you how to define your existence.”
The last speech of the block and the day was given by senior Salam Kasu. She addressed White privilege and her contrasting reality.
“My color is not who I am, but in this system, it limits me to who I will become,” Kasu said. She went on to describe what actions must be made in order to progress. “We need accountability. We need to change the culture that surrounds us. We need to make the small changes that ripple.”