Teens Talk about Racism

Teens Talk about Racism

by Maryann Woods-Murphy

Martina, a high school sophomore, told her teacher she was nervous about talking with students from other schools about race.

As she boarded the yellow school bus to participate in the annual Teens Talk About Racism conference in Teaneck, New Jersey, she wondered: “What if they automatically think I’m racist because I’m a White girl from an affluent school?”

Although Martina is White, about half of the participants at the conference are youth of color.

A recent study published by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project reports that 62 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, students are attending schools that are increasingly segregated and moving backwards.

To live up to the vision of Brown, there is much work to do at every level, but at least for one day there is a safe space where students from diverse backgrounds can meet, appreciate each other and plan for change.

Teens Talk About Racism is the brainchild of Theodora Lacey, a retired science teacher and civil rights activist who cut her teeth during the Montgomery bus boycott working side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As co-chair of Teens Talk About Racism, I recognize that in a nation haunted by racism and the consequences of failing to eradicate it, students can help lead the way to better days.

Each year, I watch high school students from 10 or more participating schools flood into the conference as complete strangers to one another.

At first, they’re shy and prefer to sit with friends from their home schools, but from the very first moment, they are grouped with students from neighboring districts.

This year, a booming playlist of songs with inspirational titles like “Imagine” and “Lean on Me” set the tone for the conference theme, “Building Dialogue, Living Empathy,” but the real magic happened in classrooms run by youth leaders.

These students had practiced facilitating dialogue in video conferencing sessions held before the conference, but they were a bit jittery as they stepped up to lead hard conversations about race and identity.

Even though all students chosen to participate in Teens Talk have engaged in school leadership activities, it’s scary for them to share their thoughts with students they don’t know. It helps that they were told to speak from their own perspectives and stay open to new points of view.

Once the ice is broken, the stories begin to flow. One student of color talked about being trailed in a department store by the sales attendant, and Martina shared how uncomfortable she felt when racist comments were simply written off as “jokes” by fellow students.

Up until then, she felt powerless to stand up to her friends when these situations came up, but because of the conference, she wanted to try harder to speak out.

By the end of the day, students looked at each other with eyes wide open. They laughed. They expressed fear. And, most of all, they learned they could create change by identifying key issues on campus to fix.

Action planning for the future included student-run initiatives, such as assemblies showcasing multicultural art, performances and video, campus interviews capturing the stories of international students and starting dialogues that include, as one student said, “All of the students who didn’t get to come here today, but who really need to have these conversations.”

When Martina and her fellow participants boarded the bus at the end of a day full of radical conversations, they shared feelings of hope and resolve.

One student said in a closing panel, “We come here and think: I am just one person, what can I do about racism? But, if we all stand together, we are more than just one, we are united.”

As I left the conference, I understood how much work remains before we accomplish the dream of integration heralded by Brown, but I am grateful that these youth leaders showed me how to break down walls of hatred with our words in order to create a foundation of hope with our actions.

Maryann Woods-Murphy is a gifted and talented specialist in Nutley, New Jersey and the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year.
Students’ names have been changed to protect their identities.


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