The assembly filled with students and staff eagerly awaiting student speaches during the Telling Your Story assembly A-block. Asking for Courage held the entire high school’s attention on Tuesday, Dec. 11.
Asking for Courage Day 2018
December 11, 2018
On Tuesday, Dec. 11, the high school held a series of assemblies and discussions related to race and racism for the annual Asking for Courage Day. Below is detailed coverage of many of the events and conversations from the day.
Seniors Callie Rabanovitz and Ranna Shahbazi started the first auditorium assembly of the Asking for Courage day by introducing the nine speakers who would take the stage in the “Telling Your Stories” event and the day’s goal to encourage compassion and acknowledge racism and privilege in Brookline.
Senior Roger Burtonpatel discussed how racism affected him, as a white-passing male, and his father, an Indian man, very differently. He recalled his freedom to walk without fear despite police presence, while his father would be stopped at an airport under suspicion of being a terrorist.
Burtonpatel also made a call to action for people to get involved, saying that they, like him, might not be doing all they can, but need to start to try.
Junior Ifunanyaife Richardson recited a powerful poem, questioning if certain characteristics took away from her Black identity.
“I like country music, I am not the best dancer, I don’t know the proper setting to use the word finesse; am I still black?” Richardson asked.
While Richardson said she does not feel Black, she said she knows that the stereotypes around her race are still imposed on her. Richardson recalled a personal story where she felt unsafe after she called the police to help her and her family get off a highway in Florida.
“I wanted to leave, leave the highway, leave Florida, but I couldn’t, so we waited for the police officers to come,” Richardson said. “‘What would happen when they did come?’ I thought. ‘Would they be racist? Would I be safe?’”
This experience made Richardson question the way that how she perceived Florida due to the prevalent racism.
“I saw Florida in a very different way,” Richardson said. “This time I saw Florida where a man in his 40s shot and killed a black teenage boy because he felt threatened, a Florida where so many Black people have been killed under the pretense of the Stand Your Ground law.”
Senior William McCormick spoke of how he felt insecure as the only Japanese student in his Japanese class, especially with the weeaboo culture at the high school.
“I questioned whether I was really Japanese enough to call myself mixed-race,” McCormick said. “Whenever I spoke in class, or even to my mother, I felt reluctant and extremely nervous because anything I did was too weird or too different from today’s fetishized pop version of Japan that many Americans share.”
McCormick spoke of situations where he called his identity into question because of comments made by classmates.
“Someone said to me that my celebrity, who I idolized as a child, didn’t create real Japanese music,” McCormick said. “Just because she’s older doesn’t mean she’s any less Japanese. Hey, Beach Boys are still American right? This comment completely turned my world upside-down.”
Junior Anjoli Mathew discussed the lasting impact that childhood has and how, for her, the sense of never really fitting in affected her.
“It’s like they were trying to fit me into a box of ‘just Indian,’ which didn’t make sense to me, just as ‘just American’ wouldn’t make sense either,” Mathew said. “But reconciling that gray area between the two parts of my identity didn’t make sense to other people, making me acutely aware that I didn’t fit in anyone’s expectation of me, and I never could.”
“His hellos are in another language,” senior Diego Echeverria de Cordova recited. “Illegal!” the crowd roared back.
A group of students gave an immersive presentation about illegal immigration on Tuesday, Dec. 11 during C-block. Senior Isabella Moros managed the assembly and transitioned through the powerpoint as accompanying students sat on stage reading quotes from politicians and Latino immigrants aloud, adding to their emotional weight.
Through their presentation, the students challenged myths and fears about immigration, explored themes such as belonging to a homeland, emphasized the benefits of immigration and also delved into historical background and current day issues.
The assembly opened with a powerful poem that emphasized haughty judgements people make about Latino immigrants. Members of the presentation sat in the audience, representing a judgemental crowd, and shouted out “illegal” and “legal” after each description Cordova shouted.
The students followed this moving poem with a “stand up if…” activity that showed how America is a country composed of immigrants.
Moros then catapulted into the first chapter of their powerpoint presentation titled “The Invasion,” and then delved into the second chapter, which addressed the irrational fear that immigrants are stealing jobs. They presented compelling data that showed how immigrants are actually invaluable to the economy.
Afterwards, Moros transitioned to their third chapter titled “Dreamers or Delinquents?” that explored the misconception that all Latino immigrants are “rapists and criminals.”
They showed an eye-opening video on the racy and wildly inaccurate depiction of Latinos in media. Students then refuted these misconceptions with data showing that undocumented immigrants commit less crime than native-born citizens.
Next, they introduced a powerful quote from nurse Monica Vazquez, who was inspired to work hard by her parents.
“For everyone who says I’m a rapist, murderer, criminal- you won’t know my story, but I’ll be at your bedside taking care of you at your worst moment, and I think you’ll be glad I’m still here,” Vazquez said.
Moros then transitioned to their final chapter, “Perpetual Foreigner,” which responded to claims that Latino immigrants will never be able to assimilate. It also explored the history of the United States, and how California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were annexed from Mexico, effectively making many Mexicans foreigners in their own land.
“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” Moros said.
The most moving moment of the assembly was when Moros showed snippets of a documentary on children separation at the border. A distraught and heartbroken young girl recounted her story while staring sadly into camera, and the audience struggled to hold back tears as they listened to an audio clip of a sobbing girl begging to call her aunt.
Multi-Racial Affinity Club (MAC)
A C-block presentation and gallery walk about multiracial students and families at the high school and in the media was held in the MLK room.
Hosted by Spanish teacher Astrid Allen, Dean of Student Support Systems Brian Poon, freshman Nathan Harris and sophomores Lexi Danesco and Aysia Wilson, the Multiracial presentation began with a gallery walk around the MLK room. The room had exhibits such as an array of photos of the high school’s multiracial families and community and multiracial people in part of literature, sports, music, film and television.
In addition to visual exhibits, there were also interactive stations set up around the room. These posed questions such as “What race do you identify as?” and “How do you think multiracial people are portrayed in media?” In the back corner of the room, students hosting the presentation explained how being multiracial has affected their lives.
After the hosting teachers called the room to order, a series of videos were shown featuring multiracial students at the high school and television interviews with celebrities sharing their experience being multiracial.
“We started this club a couple years ago because during Asking for Courage and just in life, we’ve always felt like ‘Huh, what box do we check? Who are we? What do we identify as?’” Allen said.
After the videos, the hosts spoke to the audience about the benefits to the multiracial experience.
“Being multiracial, I can see a lot more mirrors because I can have two perspectives,” Harris said. “For me, I can see my white half on my mom’s side and my Black half on my dad’s side.”
The hosts also spoke about how being multiracial impacts their interactions with other people.
“It’s impacted my life because I feel like I don’t look like a certain race,” Danesco said. “I feel like I look like both or not either of them, so constantly I’m asked ‘what am I?’ and that just impacts me because I have to go through it probably every day.”
For students interested in the Multiracial Affinity Community, the club meets every other X-block and every other Monday after school in room 231.
Beauty Standards- Women of Color
“Pretty enough for a dark girl” is what many girls have had to settle for. The “Beauty Standards for Women of Color” discussion addressed this problem.
Junior Ifeamaka Richardson opened the conversation, posing a question to the audience, which led the rest of the videos and discussions.
“It’s hard for women of color to feel pretty. It’s hard for women, in general, to feel pretty. Where do our concepts of beauty even come from?” Richardson said.
Her speech was followed by an Anderson Cooper video discussing the “doll study.” In this video, 4 and 5-year-old children, followed by 9 and 10-year-old children, looked at pictures of dolls with different skin tones and pointed out which ones were “good,” “bad,” “dumb,” “mean,” and more. Following the video was a discussion on race and why girls of color were generally associated with negative stereotypes, while white girls were generally associated with positive stereotypes.
Seniors Rana Shahbazi and Callie Rabinovitz led the next conversation, where students and teachers wrote down a time when they felt “ugly.” Rabinovitz began the discussion with her own experience.
“When I was younger people would tell me ‘you can’t be Jewish because you’re a chink,’” Rabinovitz said.
The final video was the Buzzfeed video “What Dark-Skinned People Won’t Tell You,” discussing the stereotypes and beauty standards for people of color. The video discussed both external and internalized racism.
Dean Summer Williams left the audience with a question that wrapped up the conversation.
“What can you do in your spaces after you leave the high school?” Williams said.
Students Against Institutional Racism (SAIR)
During C-block there were many different events, but the most up-close and personal one was the presentation, “People Hate Change”, which was led by members of SAIR (Students Against Institutional Racism).
The 12 students and one faculty adviser, social studies teacher Oye Carr, filled the hour with background on the club’s history, what they’ve accomplished so far, how they got there and what their goals for the future are. They then transitioned into a privilege walk, followed by small-group discussions.
According to seniors Vishni Samaraweera and Ben Haber, who co-founded the club two years ago, they started the club because they wanted a student-led group that focused on institutional racism issues in our schools and would work to effect change. Their overall goal is for all the systems and policies within the high school to be equitable for all.
The two main projects that the group described were their curriculum work and a program called Bridge to SAIR.
SAIR members found that the middle school US history curriculum in Brookline left many perspectives out. They found a need to diversify the curriculum, so, according to the presentation, they created their own curriculum that covers more subjects and is more diverse.
According to Samaraweera, the process was long and hard, but eventually, their hard work paid off.
“Not only did our curriculum get implemented, but the entire 8th grade US history curriculum has now been recentered to be around human rights, so we made a big change,” Samaraweera said.
Seniors IK Agba, Samantha Song and Richard Desir spoke about Bridge to SAIR, the program that they, along with Samaraweera, founded. Bridge to SAIR gives middle schoolers the chance to experience the same open environment and platform that the high school members of SAIR do when talking about injustices and ways to fix those problems.
“We all came from predominantly white middle schools, and we felt that our teachers didn’t teach us that we had the power to make change in our communities,” Agba said. “We want to really implant that thought that the kids have the power to make change before they come to the high school.”
According to Desir and Song, the process of starting this middle school-centered program was long and difficult and involved many meetings, especially in regards to funding. It is currently only implemented at Pierce Elementary School, but their goal is to have it in all eight elementary schools.
After the introduction to the program, all audience members stood up and took to the floor of the Schluntz Gymnasium to participate in a privilege walk, an activity in which Haber read statements aloud in regards to identity, and those to whom the statement applied would either step forward or backward.
Some examples from the walk were, “If you do not have financial worries, take one step forward;” “If English was your first language, take one step forward;” “If at least one of your parents has a college degree, step forward” and “If you feel unsafe walking alone at night in your neighborhood, take one step back.” Most of the statements revolved around education, race, gender and religion.
After the walk, students were reunited with the classes and teachers they came with and had discussions about the privilege walk. The discussions were led by SAIR members.
After these stimulating discussions, the whole audience reconvened for closing remarks in which the club recapitulated their goals and mission.
“I wish I had more days like today,” English teacher Kevin Wang said as he opened the assembly on Asian American identity in the Roberts-Dubbs Auditorium. Wang spoke about how every time he was stereotyped as an Asian American, he wished there were more days like Asking for Courage Day.
The assembly focused on the stereotypes that plague Asian Americans in today’s society and at the high school. Student and faculty speakers shared their personal stories and experiences with these stereotypes and how they believe we can strive towards change.
Sophomore Sol Heo believes that the issues impacting the high school need more attention in the effort to fix them.
“I do not want to be standing in the stage again next year, complaining about the same issues I am complaining about now,” Heo said.
Many of the speakers spoke about their the issue of misidentifying Asian students by calling them by the wrong names. Seniors Alishah Khan and Vishni Samaraweera spoke together about their hatred of this issue.
“My name is Vishni Samaraweera,” Samaraweera said. “And my name is Alishah Khan,” Khan said. “Remember the difference,” they both emphatically stated, concluding the speech.
Adding an artistic element to the assembly, junior Sarah Tanabe recited an adapted poem about her experiences with her multiracial identity of half white and half Asian.
“There is no best of both worlds when neither one wants you,” Tanabe said. “There is no community to fall back on.”
Probably the most evident theme of the assembly was the call to action by the speakers. None of them seemed content with simply talking about the issues but wanted to act. They hope that the high school can provide a space for society to improve upon these issues.
“Instead of sitting around and complaining, although that did feel good to get off our chest,” Khan and Samaraweera said. “We use your words of hatred as a catalyst for change.”
Race Reels “Shorts”
Social studies teacher Malcolm Cawthorne surveyed the packed MLK room and, after allowing the final few students to file in, began to speak. He introduced the film of the day: a 14-minute short by the New Yorker. Titled “The History of Black Protests in Sports,” the short opened with an interview with Harry Edwards, a sociologist and social worker with various NFL teams, and his voice silenced the crowds and returned them to their seats as it began.
“There is no such thing as staying in your own lane in sports,” Edwards said. “You’re engaged in politics.”
Cawthorne holds a Race Reels every month, but typically they are after school on Thursdays. This one, however, was stuffed into one school block. The Race Reels “Shorts” took place on the Asking for Courage Day, during D-block.
After setting the background with a modern analysis of the national anthem, the video essay listed several black athletes ahead of their time with their handling of politics.
“The athletes of the 1960’s are much different than the generation of athletes that preceded them,” Jelani Cobb, a reporter with the New Yorker, said. “You saw things like Lew Alcindor becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali refusing to go to Vietnam.”
Cobb then shifted focus to current events, referencing NFL protests as an important example of black athlete activism.
“I think that what’s happened now with the current generation of athletes,” Cobb said. “We’ve been inundated with video of people being killed by police under at best questionable circumstances. And we’ve seen it again and again and again and again and again.”
The video pointed at the spread of police brutality as one of the causes for the rise in sports protests, such as the Cavaliers wearing “I can’t breathe” shirts during warmup and Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem.
Following the video, the group held a brief discussion about its contents and various thoughts on the subject. Cawthorne prompted the audience to think about the bravery required to speak out for what you believe in.
“It’s important to think about that in the moment, and to think about what has happened with other athletes, who have been perceived as anti-American,” Cawthorne said. “But what does the First Amendment give you the right to? To free speech and to assemble, free press and religion. So it’s important to remember that in all this zeal, he’s doing the most American thing possible. In the midst of all this fire, he might be doing everything the Founding Fathers wanted Americans to do.”
The Hate U Give
“Police killed 1,147 people in 2017. Black people were 25 percent of those killed, despite being only 13 percent of the population.” This is one of the many facts that provoked a discussion on police brutality during the D-block assembly based on the book and movie The Hate U Give (THUG) in the Black Box.
The presentation started out with a “hands up, hands down” activity, where members of the audience raised their hand when a statement applied to them. It started off simple, with statements such as “Raise your hand if you have seen or read THUG,” where most students raised their hands. As time progressed, the statements became more thought-provoking and fewer students raised their hands. Such statements included “Raise your hand if police brutality affects your life.”
After this short introduction, students were introduced to Angie Thomas’ book, The Hate U Give. The first letters of each word in the title spell “THUG,” short for “THUG LIFE,” which stands for “The Hate U Give, Little Infants F’s Everyone”. The book tells the story of African American girl Starr who is forced to find her voice after witnessing the murder of her friend, Khalil, by a cop.
The first question open for discussion was “What does THUG LIFE mean to you?” Sophomore Meg Hitchcock-Smith responded to the question by acknowledging that racism is largely passed on by society.
“Children aren’t born to be racist or prejudiced,” Hitchcock-Smith said. “It’s what we pass down as a society and what parents outright tell them. We raise a generation of children who don’t recognize that it is wrong.”
Sophomore Amita Polumbaum shared how the training of police officers have can play a role in police brutality.
“Police, in general, just have so little training. The whole ‘shoot first, ask questions later,’ that’s partially an issue of training,” Polumbaum said.
Following this initial discussion, more interesting statistics were presented. For example, “fewer than one in three Black people killed by police in America in 2014 were suspected of a violent crime and allegedly armed.” Also, the presentation revealed that the incarceration rate for African American men is about six times that for white men.
Students shared ways to combat police brutality and other forms of racism through social media and activism. For guidance counselor Sara Aggeler, it is essential that people play active roles, such as planning an activity that has a clear goal or having conversations with communities.
“We’re all on this escalator, and we are all moving towards racism,” Aggeler said. “And the only way to do anything about that is to actively walk in the opposite direction.”
During G-block, a large portion of the high school gathered in the Roberts-Dubbs Auditorium to grapple with the issue of anti-Semitism through speeches, videos and other presentations.
The assembly was dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa. on Oct. 27, 2018.
The assembly began with a video relating modern anti-Semitism to a history of anti-Semitic stereotypes, including how Jews were “blamed for being in league with the devil and the black death.” Citing a survey conducted in more than 100 countries by the Anti Defamation League (ADL) from 2013-2014, the video revealed that around one-fourth of the survey subjects “held anti-Semitic attitudes.“
Also in the video, Sheryl Silver Ochayon from the International School for Holocaust Studies recounted the story of how anti-Semitism plagued Billings, Montana in 1993 and yet the response from the public, both Jewish and non-Jewish, was uplifting as they challenged ignorance in their town.
“With anti-Semitism prevalent again today, it is important to highlight groups and individuals who act against it,” Ochayon said.
Next, senior Ari Filler spoke about the ignorance surrounding the Holocaust around the world, specifically in Europe, but also in the US.
“This anti-Semitism might not feel real here, but it is real,” Filler said. “This stuff might not feel real because it’s 2018, not 1939. And we have to act like it’s real.”
Lauren Small, who has worked with various Jewish Organizations, including Yad Chessed, which provides assistance to Jewish families living in poverty, also spoke.
“We had to break a stereotype that all Jews are wealthy because it just isn’t true,” Small said. “Anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world is a very complex topic. Recognize that Jews are a tiny minority in the United States and an even smaller one in the world. Recognize that no one is immune from hatred and bigotry. Recognize that anti-Semitism happens here in the United States, in Brookline.”
Junior Camila Krugman, the daughter of refugees from the Soviet Union escaping religious intolerance, provided examples of the anti-Semitism she has faced throughout her life, including a post on Instagram specifically targeting her and other Jews.
“It’s experiences like these and so many more that I remember when people tell me that anti-Semitism just isn’t a problem in the United States,” Krugman said. “It is a problem, both in the United States and in the whole world.
The assembly ended with a presentation by social studies teacher Sam Dreyfus on the next steps towards fighting oppression and ignorance. He listed the four types of oppression: ideological, institutional, interpersonal and internalized, and then described their differences and connections. Next, Dreyfus outlined how Jews and non-Jews could work to challenge oppressive systems. For Jews, his emphasis was on “mutual alliances” between oppressed groups.
“We need people to stand up for us when we’re getting targeted,” Dreyfus said. “But we also need to remember that as a community, we actually now do have access to institutional power and so we need to use our access to institutional power to stand with other groups of people being targeted by institutional oppression.”
Applause from the crowd filled the Black Box after the cast’s performance. A few minutes later, a new group of actors appeared and commenced a new scene. Through multiple stand-alone skits, the Brookline Education Theatre Company (BETCo)’s performances on Asking for Courage Day focused around topics of racial stereotyping, equality versus equity and microaggressions.
The first skit touched on the harsh reality of the impact of one’s racial identity in dictating one’s future. The scene opened with actors portraying babies of different races preparing for their birth, guarded by a gatekeeper. To receive their “umbilical cord” and therefore be born, they were requested to voice their dreams and hopes.
Among this included being a baseball player, social activist and senator. However, everytime, the gatekeeper shot down each person’s aspirations and replaced them with common racial stereotypes.
Other skits portrayed a border scene where Americans were attempting to enter Mexico and an interaction between a Black man and white woman on the street.
After the performances, performing arts teacher Mark Vanderzee opened up the floor for a discussion with the question, “To what degree and in what ways does your racial identity influence the way you perceived the performance?”
During the discussion, students shared their reactions to the scenes and takeaways from the block. Cast members revealed several factors they considered when writing the plays. For example, some of the performances included direct quotes from historical reports and characters, known as verbatim theatre.
Overall, the BETCo cast intended to challenge existing beliefs and stereotypes people held about race and ethnicity and drew from their own experiences when creating the plays.