ILLUSTRATION BY GRAHAM KREWINGHAUS
Responding to George Floyd together
School leaders process injustice, push for change
June 18, 2020
On May 25, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, and the city responded immediately and furiously with protests. Although the magnitude of the protests was at its peak in Minneapolis, it was not contained there for long, permeating the entire country and cities around the world. Black Lives Matter protests are still going strong in many cities, as activists seek justice not just for George Floyd but for the countless Black people dead at the hands of police in the past decade, and demand more meaningful changes than ever before.
Brookline has been no exception when it comes to participation in this movement. The town has had crowded protests on the streets as well as conversations at Select Board meetings. Individual students have made their voices heard through many mediums, from social media to petitions to loudspeakers. More subtly, but just as consistently, administrators and teachers have taken action to make the whole school aware of the movement. This action, whether it be a response to the injustice, an inward reflection or a push for tangible changes, has been taken by more faculty than ever before during this time of national unrest.
Contributed reporting by Nina Rogers and Elena Su.
Grappling with a tragedy
Students and teachers alike were hit hard by the news of George Floyd’s murder, and social media and the city streets erupted not long after. In Brookline, the school community affected change and banded together through online vigils, shared resources and discussions.
On June 3, a vigil was held via Zoom to commemorate Floyd’s life. It drew students, faculty and community members alike. Dean Jenee Uttaro, who played a major role in organizing the vigil, stressed the importance of addressing the news as a community, rather than individually.
“I was pretty significantly impacted by what happened, and even before cities across the country began reacting, it hurt so deeply
as a person of color to feel that,” Uttaro said. “It’s hard to capture all of the emotions that come up because of that. So it was a selfish move for me in some ways, because I felt like I needed to do something more than just be sad.”
According to Uttaro, the event took a week to put together with the help of students and staff. She said the goal was to recreate the sense of communal space that the high school loses by being in remote learning, and that being online came with its own unique advantages.
“If we were in person, we would’ve organized and offered affinity group sessions in the MLK room, whatever spaces we have where we can convene, and we would have been face-to-face and talking about this,” Uttaro said. “Not just students of color, but all of us.”
Efforts to bridge that distance have been implemented following the George Floyd murder. Spanish teacher Lindsay Davis tried to bridge that gap by sharing a choice board of resources with all students during the vigil, which has since been posted to the high school’s website. According to Davis, she prioritized personal listening and learning before putting together the board.
“What I think people often do is they’re quick to share things immediately, without really sitting and reading. To avoid that, I spent Saturday in my bedroom, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and I was like, ‘I’m just going to shut up and listen,'” Davis said. “I watched the videos and read the posts, and tried to think about what I could post to my white students that could be actionable, and then for my Black and Brown students, what would feel restorative and empowering.”
Spanish teacher and Advisory Co-Coordinator Emily McGinnis, who added to Davis’ board, said it was important for the resources to be varied in target audience as well as format.
“We’re trying to provide a wide variety of resources to students so that they can get what they need at that time,” McGinnis said. “We want to meet them where they’re at, but also push and challenge, so we really do need to provide kids a variety of resources for learning. We’ve put together those choice boards so that students can get themselves through that and then meet for discussions, whether that’s on Zoom or just on Canvas.”
Although the board presented students with the most important information, both McGinnis and Davis said that some of the community’s sense of togetherness was lost during remote learning.
“It just would have been so much more connected in class, and kids would have been able to see each other’s reactions,” Davis said. “To have a class with students of color sitting next to white students, the entire experience would have been so different, and I would have been able to support everyone in a much better way.”
Uttaro said that the community aspect is still critical to the school’s response, despite the disconnectedness of remote learning. She hopes that students are reaching out to their peers to bridge the distance.
“Something that would be helpful for students of color is for everyone to take a minute to think about what their own action should be, and how they can help in their own way. The choice board page has tons of resources on it for people to go educate themselves,” Uttaro said. “We need to continue to commit to educating ourselves, being allies and supporting one another in this. Try to get some insight into what it feels like to be a Black boy at BHS, what it means to be a person of color at BHS.”
Reflecting on Brookline’s history
Many have found it helpful to contextualize recent events by relating them to what has happened within Brookline, in terms of injustice in the police department as well as systemic racism at the high school. Social worker Paul Epstein sent a letter to his students shortly after hearing about Floyd’s death and said in an interview that it felt important to bring the conversation back to Brookline.
“I could have written about 400 years of slavery, institutionalized racism in police or academia, but what ended coming out was about Brookline,” Epstein said. “It was unconscious but I wanted it to feel real to my students who go to school here and might live here. Brookline is a big part of their lives, and I wanted it to not seem like it just happened in Minneapolis, but that it was a part of a bigger picture, with bigger connected events and systematic processes that affect all of us but especially Black people in this country.”
One story Epstein mentioned was that of Officers Estifanos Zerai-Misgun and Prentice Pilot, whose cases of discrimination in the police department were settled in 2017 and 2018 respectively, without the town or the police department accepting blame. Head of School Anthony Meyer argued that this incident may have been indicative of a larger institutional problem that undermines trust of the local police.
“We’ve lost really good police officers, including a graduate, over racial incidents that were very poorly handled by the town, and seemingly by the police,” Meyer said. “I think there’s a need for candor about that, because when we ignore it, it doesn’t go away, and in fact all it does is undercut trust.”
METCO Coordinator Malcom Cawthorne said that institutionalized racism is keeping many complaints from coming to light as well as downplaying the stories of those that do come forward. He cited the handling of cases like those of Zerai-Misgun, Pilot, firefighter Gerald Alston and former Dean of Students Adrian Mims.
“One thing I’m trying to challenge is this argument that it’s fine because Black people aren’t putting in complaints,” Cawthorne said. “Because of course they aren’t complaining. If you thought somebody was unfair, why would you go complaining to them thinking you’d get a fair resolution? There’s always this double-edged sword, because if you don’t complain they won’t know, but if you do complain, look what happens.”
In many ways, the discrimination claims that did make it to the surface draw a sharp contrast to Brookline’s progressive self-image. Cawthorne said the instinctual reaction to assertions of systemic racism is to deny or downplay because of that contrast but that it is imperative that the community face the issue head on.
“What happens for a lot of people in this town is that they make a choice to live here because they see it as progressive, and when it’s not that, then what kind of choice did they make? So I often refer to that as ‘upholding the brand,’ and they’ll go through all kinds of hoops to say ‘we’re not racist,’ even when it means ignoring what we know to be wrong and unjust,” Cawthorne said. “That happens a lot even at the high school. People can’t believe it’s them, and it’s probably not them as individuals, but if you’re upholding the brand and not addressing any issues that go against it, you’re also upholding systemic and institutional racism.”
Across the country and around the world, people have taken to the streets as well as social media to fight against racial injustice in all its forms. At the high school, one aspect of the surging anti-racism movement is an upcoming Juneteenth celebration, which was organized by students and faculty and will take place over Zoom on Friday, June 19. Associate Dean of Students Summer Williams, who is coordinating the planning, said the team is working to ensure a positive experience despite the distance barrier.
“One of the things I thought was beautiful about the vigil was that it didn’t just reach the Brookline High School community, it reached the Brookline community,” Williams said. “So I’m thoughtful about how it could be the same with this Juneteenth celebration.”
Juneteenth is a celebration of the day the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, the last of the Confederate states to free its slaves, on June 19, 1865. The holiday is gaining popularity across the country as a celebration of Black freedom and history.
According to Williams, the celebration will be tangentially related to Floyd and the protests, but the importance is still there.
“It’s definitely related to other current events, but not in a reactionary manner,” Williams said. “One protest is not going to change the world. We need a long, sustained effort. And I think this is part of that move towards a longer, more sustained effort for us as a school community to make sure we’re highlighting and speaking about the things that need to be addressed.”
The high school has also held a Black Lives Matter protest, and many educators are encouraging students to attend larger Brookline and Boston protests as well. Meyer said that protesting fits into the larger puzzle of allyship for white students and their families, making it important for all to take part in.
“We need to think about how best to be allies, and how best to educate ourselves about these issues of institutional racism and police violence. So I do encourage students and families to attend protests,” Meyer said. “But there can be dangers in that, at nightfall, when it might devolve into violence and looting. So I’m always mindful of student safety.”
Meyer agreed, however, with many teachers that the necessary work is not just in the streets, and there is much to be done within the school itself, combating institutionalized issues. Uttaro mentioned enrollment in high-level classes as one such issue.
“We’ve got a lot of discrepancies throughout the schools. There isn’t enough representation of students of color in AP classes, or in many cases, honors-level classes,“Uttaro said. “And I think we as a district need to look at that data and move to make changes and take action steps. Not just observe the problem, but take action steps to change our classrooms and our interactions. Because we know these realities. It hits you in the face when you see them.”
Cawthorne said that self-education is some of the most important work to do in this time, particularly for white students.
“There’s a learning process to understand what people are feeling. In that learning process, it’s really important for white kids to challenge those subconscious reminders of being ‘better,’ and to constantly be challenging that within yourself and others,” Cawthorne said. “Talking about race is seen as really taboo. Most people are told that we don’t talk about it. So confronting that scariness is important.”
Once you have gotten comfortable with hard conversations, Williams recommends starting to integrate small actions into your life, whether by thinking about the messages in your music or challenging something on social media.
“There are all these little steps, these everyday actions that people can take to really find their place in racial justice and anti-racist work,” Williams said. “It’s hard to do and it’s confrontational and it’s uncomfortable, but it still has to happen. So getting yourself to a place where you’re okay with all of that feels like a really good first step.”
Williams added that only after getting past the discomfort can the school community connect as a whole, talk about the difficult topics and work on making change.
“Students need to take it upon themselves to de-silo and reach out to each other,” Williams said. “We need to work on fostering a school community that really looks out for one another, supports one another and continues to value being asked to think about points of view that don’t match our own. Because that’s the work that’s going to prevent things like this from happening.”