Youth are our future. This is a commonplace cliched saying iterated by adults who rarely make space for youth to lead their communities.
The young founders of the WJCC Racial Equity Student Alliance (RESA) aren’t waiting for permission to speak. This youth-led alliance, a partnership between students from the area’s middle and high schools, expects a seat at the official table. In fact, they’ve already sat with local reporters, NAACP board members and the WJCC School Board to share who they are and what they demand.
I met with two RESA representatives, a sophomore and a junior, to hear how they intend to lead their school communities towards a more just and inclusive future.
“They said, unfortunately, you get used to it.” The two students of color corroborate what they have been told by adults, including their parents, about facing discrimination in life.
The junior recalls joining the WJCC school system in the fourth grade where race-based jokes are common. The junior’s first coping strategy was to ignore them.
The sophomore joined the WJCC school system from Newport News and said by the sixth grade noticed an elevation in bullying tactics.
“Students were being racist, and I could tell that it was being taught.” In the crux of their development, with heightened attention to dating and romance, the sophomore recalls students saying that their parents wouldn’t allow them to date Black people. After a performance in the school’s play, a rendition of Aladdin, a parent suggested that the sophomore should not have been cast in their role because their skin tone didn’t fit the part.
“We don’t want [students] to go through just having to deal with [racial discrimination]; it causes an extra strain on mental health,” the two RESA spokespersons agreed.
“The school system wants to find a balance,” explains Richard Ambler. He teaches World Government, Micro-Economics and Social Studies at Jamestown High School. He has been at JHS since its inception. He can rationalize, if not empathize, with varying perspectives on the issue. He has, as he puts it, “the gift of time.”
Having been there and seen that, he provides advocacy and a listening ear to students in and out of his classroom. This is how he understands his role as a WJCC teacher. He is to encourage and motivate; he tells his students: “You don’t have to believe what I believe, but I’m going to challenge you to figure out why you believe what you believe.”
In addition, he says he is to “comfort the discomforted.” He knows that while the school system seeks to reconcile between parties involved in racially-charged disputes, the perpetrator(s) in these incidents don’t always want to.
I understand Ambler’s insight and can speak to its reality first-hand. One of my last employers led me to agree to reconcile differences between a supervisor and myself after what I would call a racially biased altercation. I was told that the company is vehemently against racism. The company’s specific polices against racism and discrimination were reiterated to me. In the end, the perpetrator still works as a supervisor for this company and I do not.
The students of color find themselves stuck between a rock and hard place. The teen founders report that according to the WJCC school system the sentiment “Black lives matter” is political. The image of a Black fist is political. Naturally, school policy states that WJCC teachers are not allowed to state their political opinions. As a result, an oversight occurs. A strange fear permeates the schools’ atmospheres.
The very people – i.e. the students of color – whose experiences are burdened by racism and discrimination become victims in a system that naively encourages silence.
Ambler says he’s committed to challenging privilege every day. “Does your defense [of privilege] sound genuine, or are you reaching?” He reports some students avoid taking his classes because of his reputation to push students to think. In response to the growth of the WJCC Racial Equity Student Alliance, whose demands he fully supports, he says: “I am not asking them to disrespect their elders, their parents or their teachers, but you cannot disrespect yourself…We walk our individual lives in search of ourselves.”
RESA is demanding:
- To Anonymously Report Discrimination
- Stronger Consequences for Racism
- African-American History Electives
- Annual Multi-day Assemblies on Race and Equity
- For Parents to be Held Accountable
- More Well-Rounded History Classes
- Equal Opportunities
The students have planned a virtual Town Hall Meeting for Thursday, October 29 at 5 p.m. to educate their community on their mission and their intentions to improve the school experience of students of color. For an invite, email firstname.lastname@example.org.