By Elaine Gross (click here for the PDF)
Once a month, high school students from across New York’s Long Island, one of the ten most racially segregated metropolitan regions in the nation, gather to share their experiences with racial segregation, gain from each other’s insights, and discuss action steps for effecting change. They gather as members of the Student Task Force of ERASE Racism, the civil rights organization based on Long Island that addresses systemic racism, especially in housing and schools.
The students lead the Task Force, which advances racial equity on issues impacting their lives, with logistical facilitation by ERASE Racism, and we, therefore, know the students well. We spoke with several current or recently graduated members of the Task Force in connection with this article, and their comments are especially enlightening as the nation grapples increasingly with how, where, and whether to talk about systemic racism in America.
The students explained that ERASE Racism’s Student Task Force enables them to step outside of the confines of housing and school segregation and meet with diverse students from across the region, who share an interest in talking about the segregation that affects them daily. Housing and school segregation are a reality on Long Island—not just in the past but in the present. Newsday’s 2019 landmark study “Long Island Divided” revealed extensive racial discrimination by realtors on Long Island continues. It found “evidence of widespread separate and unequal treatment” of potential Black, Latinx, and Asian homebuyers. It also found contemporary steering of people of color toward certain communities and away from others – perpetuating the housing segregation that leads to school segregation.
One student from Suffolk County, who identifies as Black, said that she joined the Student Task Force because “I wanted to create a racial equity club in my high school and wanted to see what others were doing” in that regard. “I wanted to know how they were approaching administrators,” as “talking about race was frowned upon” at school. In her school, “students wanted to talk about the topic but were afraid of what school administrators would say.” As a result, discussion of race “stays within racial groups.” She added, “I want to learn what happened to my culture. Not learning my own history hurts.”
A 10th-grade student from Nassau County, who identifies as Black, said she had joined the Student Task Force to talk with diverse students about achieving racial equality. It “provides a wonderful opportunity to work collaboratively with like-minded students” and to ensure that “my voice is heard.” She enjoys hearing a range of perspectives and “learning how to agree to disagree.” She notes that “sometimes when a person says something, I have to think extra hard to understand that perspective.” She says that she is particularly interested in creating a government and democracy club at her high school, as she campaigns for local candidates for political office, so “as a 15-year-old I can have an impact.”
A 10th-grade student from Nassau County who identifies as Jewish said he was “alarmed at how little race is discussed in school.” He noted that Long Island’s two counties have 125 school districts – a fragmentation that generates housing and school segregation. At the Student Task Force, “we can talk about race, compare notes, and learn from each other.” “It’s very welcoming” and lets us “gain the skills to make change.” We talk about things like: “How do you approach change? How do you get allies? How do you talk with teachers? How do you empower students to make change?”
The two students of color talked about how hurtful the microaggressions they both suffer regularly in school are. One noted, as an example, that on one occasion she had not received a notification to bring her computer to class. When she arrived without it, the White teacher assumed that she could not afford a computer and “offered to help in a pitiful way.”
All of the students spoke with great excitement about the opportunity that the Student Task Force had provided each of them – and some of their colleagues – to address either a plenary session or a workshop at the 2021 Reimagining Education Summer Institute, the prestigious national educators’ conference held annually at Teachers College at Columbia University. This year’s four-day virtual Institute was titled “Teaching, Learning and Leading for a Racially Just Society” and provided the students with an opportunity to offer their insights into making curricula more welcoming and inclusive of diverse students and their heritages.
One student of color said, “It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.” Participating educators had commented on her insights and valued what she had to say. “Inclusive curricula should not be offensive to anyone,” she said. “It’s important to learn about history, even when it’s not pleasant. How can we learn from history, if we don’t know the past?” Another student noted, “When we finished our presentations, it was incredible how happy all the students were. It was a huge opportunity to advocate for culturally inclusive curricula. We felt that we had helped teachers change their classrooms.”
“What we experience outside, we should tackle in school,” one student said. “Students don’t need to be protected from this discussion.” They need to be heard. ▀
Elaine Gross (email@example.com) is the President of the civil rights organization ERASE Racism.