Conversations About Racism and the Road to Equality: Youth activists and education
“We’re fighting for equitable education at our school,” Lena Pak exclaimed to a group of protestors.
Lena Pak, 16, along with two of her peers, Ahlaam Abdulwali, 16, and Jinhyoung Bang, 15, are amplifying their voices and sharing their experiences with their high school classmates and the neighboring community.
The three girls came together to organize a rally in July.
“I remember that a kid turned around to me and said ‘I’m glad that you’re one of the good terrorists,'” Abdulwali passionately told people at the rally. “I can’t even express how hurtful that was to me.”
The trio said they are proud to identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and they want substantial change in education at their school and all schools, especially those that share a similar population.
Inspired by the killing of George Floyd, and the ripple effect it has had around the world, they shared their experiences with the crowd to spark a catalyst for change.
“I remember one day on the way to school this older, 8th grader had pointed at me and yelled ‘Go back to the rice fields,’” Bang said. “No child should have to defend themselves against a remark that should never have been said in the first place.”
The girls, who all currently attend Minnetonka High School, are all in the racial minority in their school experience. According to data from the Minnesota Department of Education, 81% of their classmates are white.
“When I go to high school and we have no representation of black authors when we’re reading books,” Abdulwali said. “It definitely is hurtful, and to a degree, it makes me not excited to want to go to school.”
“All of your friends are white, or all of the people in your class are white, and there’s a sense of just wanting to fit in, even though that may be at the sake of agreeing or laughing at microaggressions,” Bang said.
Abdulwali, Bang, and Pak all note the issues they face are far more widespread across the state than Minnetonka Public Schools. MHD data shows more than half of the students are white in 21 of the 30 biggest school districts in the state.
“I think for most students-of-color, being in a majority white school, you often find that your perspectives are not being represented in curriculum,” Pak said.
“Just talking about my experiences is something that I never really got to do throughout high school, throughout elementary school,” Abdulwali said. “There are just so many things that these microaggressions and this racist behavior does to people regarding their self-image.”
Their quest for representation in curriculum, anti-racist training, racial sensitivity, and diverse staff has gained traction in the area. Bang created a petition, titled, “Diversify Minnetonka Public Schools,” and it has nearly 5,000 signatures from students, alumni, parents, and community members.
After Bang went public with stating her frustration with the school district, she and Abdulwali and Pak came together to form a list of 11 imperatives for the district.
The imperatives include diverse curriculum that includes more histories and cultures, diversity training for students and staff, restorative justice, an increased commitment to recruiting teachers of diverse backgrounds, and an anti-racist statement to the community from the district.
Now they have backing from people from all walks of life in their community.
“I think that a lot of our new white allies, our new supporters that are joining the conversation are not educated yet, but they want to be, and so that makes me hopeful,” Pak said.
The girls’ push for social justice reform for their educational experiences has also been a moment of awakening for their classmates who have never noticed the issues.
“I think I’m definitely surprised at the amount of different instances of things that students of color have talked about,” Dominic Bradburn said.
Bradburn, 18, who identifies as white, is entering his senior year at Minnetonka High School. After Abdulwali, Bang, and Pak’s calls for change, Bradburn recollects instances where he witnessed discriminatory behavior.
“I just think the important thing is to listen to them and trust them and their experiences because I’ve never seen what they talk about, but that’s because I don’t know what to look for, and it’s not, of course, directed at me, so it’s a lot easier for me to ignore.”
Bradburn said he wants to listen, learn and be a strong ally for equity.
“You just think that, you know, maybe it was a joke or if it was, someone else will say something, but someone else always doesn’t … I’ve been definitely ignorant to things that I shouldn’t have been, and have been quieter about things I shouldn’t have been before,” Bradburn said.
The trio of activists’ push for implementation of a curriculum that includes the histories and cultures of more diverse groups does not surprise Kathlene Holmes Campbell, Ph.D., the dean of the University of St. Thomas’s School of Education.
“I actually think high school students have been asking for this for a long time,” Holmes Campbell said.
Holmes Campbell says Abdulwali, Bang, and Pak’s list of imperatives aligns with academic research.
“Fill in the gaps, because a textbook is giving you an overview, but who’s left out of that textbook,” she said. “I think that while there is a rigorous curriculum, what I would question is, is it really exposing you to the world?”
Rebecca Bigler, Ph.D., a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin is known for her work on racial stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination.
“The literature suggests that multicultural materials in the classroom are very important,” Bigler said.
Bigler said making diversity a priority in curriculum is vital. However, she said it should not stop there.
“That alone will not be enough to create a positive cultural environment,” she said. “To promote positive racial attitudes it is vital that educators talk both about race, what it means and what it doesn’t mean, and about racism in the classroom.”
Katie Becker is the Minnetonka School Board chair.
“We know we can do better and we will,” Becker said. She says after hearing the girls express their pain and experiences, it was an eye-opening revelation.
“The most surprising thing that I have heard is the student experience, and how they have had feelings and experiences of pain and isolation,” Becker said. “It’s heartbreaking. And it’s hard to hear that we’ve let them down in some ways.”
Dennis Peterson, Ph.D., superintendent of the Minnetonka School District, said the strongest barrier for reform is time.
“We want to hear from as many voices as possible,” Peterson said. “We’re not planning to make it a totally different district, but we do believe that we are hearing some things that need to be fixed.”
Pak said, “Diversity training will give staff specific tools and knowledge that will make them better prepared to identify and address racial microaggressions, lead respectful discussions surrounding race and to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all students.”
As Abdulwali, Bang, and Pak work to move the conversation forward, they are not just filled with hurt, but hope that their district leaders will move the needle.