Wellesley High School (WHS) students on Tuesday, April 2 participated in a sit-in inside the school and then walked out of class and onto the athletic field. The group of approximately 300, out of a WHS student population of 1,500, was led by a new WHS student organization, Young Ethnic Scholars (YES), and chanted, “Wake up, Wellesley.”
YES is an approximately 60-member group with a stated goal to “take action against the racial injustice rampant in YOUR community.” YES is made up of students of color and their allies, and serves as a sort of consortium of other clubs at WHS that are in some way based on race or ethnicity. YES does not take the place of the other clubs, which continue to meet independently. According to student leader Yasmine Jaffier, YES came about because of racial incidents that have happened in the schools. “People are sick and tired of these incidents,” Jaffier said. “Productive action must take place. We are demanding the whole town take responsibility for the racist incident.”
The incident that most recently has received attention is an email sent to a WHS African American teacher. WHS Principal Jamie Chisum in an email to the community said the teacher “had received an anonymous email containing racist and inappropriate language. The high school quickly launched an investigation and informed the school community of what had transpired. I share the frustration and anger of students, staff, and parents when I consider the impact that such a violation of our core values has on our perceptions of safety and inclusiveness within our schools. While I do not believe this incident is representative of our community as a whole, when I consider other incidents that have occurred in recent years, I also believe we cannot treat this as an isolated occurrence.”
It is unknown who sent the racist email.
As the walk-out leaders and their allies gathered at the athletic field, the energy level was high, and the tone was determined. Students held signs that screamed out a combination of supportive statements and non-supportive phrases that have been heard in the school. The signs said: “Black students matter” and “You people always make it about race” and “Young, gifted, and black” (a lyric from a Nina Simone song and a popular social media hashtag) and “Little Africa or Cafrica” (in reference to tables where students of color sit in the WHS cafeteria). Students first listed their demands for their voices to be heard and for positive changes to be enacted and expressed their desire to stand as equal, integral parts of this community. They then took turns with the microphone to tell their individual stories. Make no mistake, the individual stories were powerful, they were moving, they were painful. The stories were the current that amped the movement.
But it’s too easy to give the stories all the attention. What’s harder is absorbing the unemotional, strident, no-nonsense language of the demands. Stories ask that we listen and think. Demands say that story time is over, and it’s time for action.
Below is that verbatim list of demands as relayed by leaders of Young Ethnic Scholars, supported by members of the group and the group’s allies.
Like the students say, “Wake up, Wellesley.” Might I suggest you also buckle up while you’re at it. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Daily and pervasive
After an introduction that referenced the racist email and noted the discrimination that students of color say they face on a daily basis, Jaffier said, “This walk-out is to inform you all of our pain and to create a plan to combat the ingrained biases that are in the school system and the community of Wellesley. We will now outline the demands we agree the school needs to meet in order to create a more welcoming environment for students and teachers of color.”
One by one, students took the mike to list the seven demands. Here is what they said:
“We demand students of color be included in the hiring process of the new High School Diversity Officer position.”
“We demand the METCO room to be deregulated to give students of color a safe space during lunch.” (Editor’s note: At this time, the room is sometimes locked during times students would like to access it.)
“We demand that we should have more teachers of color hired to represent a diverse environment. We need to see an action plan for this.”
“We demand mandatory professional development with students of color, once per term, facilitated by an expert to discuss school structures that perpetuate ingrained biases. In lower level classes at the high school there are disproportionate amount of students of color, even though they’re the minority in the school. Guidance counselors should encourage students of color to take high-level classes.”
“We demand continued mandatory professional development for staff around race, privilege, and the culture of bias, and acknowledgment that we are swimming in a sea of racism.”
“We demand that an equity coach is hired for the building, whose job it is to provide continuous support and training for teachers and staff in areas of equal treatment for all students. Part of it should be a rehabilitation period where the ones that committed the racial incidents should also join clubs that deal with race to understand the impact that they have on people.”
“Finally, we demand more transparency on how the schools deal with racist incidents and the aftermath so it sends a positive message of action to the community at large.”
After the demands were listed, students and allies came to the mike and shared their stories.
In an email after the event, Chisum said, “Superintendent Dr. Lussier and I have already committed to holding conversations with our student leaders to talk about their hopes and next steps. We are excited to work with them moving forward. I am already looking forward to establishing a regular time each cycle (seven school days) to meet with student leaders from amongst our students of color.”
Waking up is a process. Let it continue.
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