“When you were 15, what would you have said to your teachers about racism?”
This was the question I found myself pondering on a recent afternoon in the basement meeting room of Lewiston Public High School listening to a racial justice presentation from a group of strong, and inspiring young women from the 21st Century after-school program preparing for a workshop with their teachers.
These women were about to stand in-front of their teachers – all of them, in the whole school – on an in-service day in a few weeks and share their stories of hope and concern around racial justice and racism in their school. Over the last few months they had worked with their staffer, Jenn Carter, to create this workshop engaging their teachers in acknowledging racism in our society and in their school, and brainstorming racial justice actions that all teachers could take to make the school a stronger and more equitable learning space for all.
I was blown away by the compassion and fortitude that these women brought to their presentation, but knew this was going to be a hard conversation to have off the bat with such a large, and diverse groups of adults. The storytelling was powerful – hopeful and honest. And yet, what folks often hear is not the story being told, but rather the reverbations of Trump, Hannity or someone else running through their mind. The idea that a 15 yo could get up in the front of the room and speak with such clarity and compassion can sometimes be so far outside of a person’s lived experience that their own cognitive dissonance shuts them down.
In all honesty, I had no idea how the actual presentation would be and I hadn’t been engaged in the planning process up to this point – so when faced with a room full of amazing young women about to do something that many folks three or four times their age didn’t have the courage to do – I chose to give them the only the gifts I had:
- My own stories of experiencing racism as a young women, and older woman and the daughter of an immigrant dad.
- Stories/experiences/feelings of how personally hard it has been for me to stand in front of rooms of white folks and engage in conversations of race as a woman of color – and how we often need to meet skepticism, critique, disbelief, and anger with compassion – and not take it in personally. Give it back to others to deal with.
- A short exercise on locating your personal strength in your body – grounding yourself in a tough time
No matter the outcome of the presentation- some will love it and some won’t – these women ar starting a courageous conversation that we all can learn from.