Students Use Trust and Empathy to Extinguish Flames Sparked by Racially Charged Controversy

The op-ed below was originally published by The Denver Post as “After racially charged dispute, Manual and Weld Central Students heal division together.” We are both encouraged and inspired by the words of Manual High School senior, Ani Vasquez, and admire the students at Manual High School and Weld Central High School for leading their school communities toward understanding and unity.

Two weeks ago student representatives from Manual High School and Weld Central High School came together with one distinct goal: to connect with one another as representatives of two deeply divided communities.

Division came on Sept. 22 when feelings and allegations of racism swept through both communities after a football game. Manual High students said they saw a Confederate flag in the stands and said that Weld County players used racial slurs on the field. Weld County officials denied the accusations.

With the stories in mind from the football game, I was preparing to tell each Weld Central student exactly how I felt about their school and their community. I justified these thoughts by convincing myself that they didn’t deserve my respect after the adversity we faced with their football team on our home field. What soon came, however, was an experience that I was not expecting.

Student leaders started our conversation in the Weld Central library. We sat in groups with a mix of students from each school to begin the introduction. I don’t think a single mind in that room knew what to prepare for, but everyone was willing to talk and that was the most important thing. Writing down our initial thoughts from the events that started after the game and continued for weeks after and sharing them out was the first vulnerable step we took. We anticipated silence but no one struggled to speak about what was on their mind, which I appreciated, because if any change were to happen, we needed to be raw and real with each other.

After, while the Weld Central Student Council gave us a tour of their school, the other Manual students and I noticed the many similarities between our school in the middle of Denver and theirs in rural Weld County. Of course we have different lifestyles, but all of the students noticed that we had the same kind of close-knit community and small, family-based student body. Every teacher we met at Weld Central reminded the Manual students of a teacher we loved at our own school. We were beginning to ease up and I recognized how we almost “clicked” as friends and as one community.

After two hours at Weld Central it was time to show off our home, our community and our family. We commuted back into the city to give them a tour of Manual and we all sat in a circle and discussed the initial thoughts, misconceptions and stereotypes we had of one another. There were things that were said that could’ve been taken offensively by either side but when difficult comments were made they were received with understanding and a desire to learn.  What prevented blame and anger was the fact that we had spent the whole day trusting each other and accepting the reality of both our differences and our surprising similarities.

These images that we place on each other are rooted in such a deeper context. These stereotypes have been implanted into our heads only from ignorance and past experiences of racism and misconception. But in this circle, we shared harsh truths about our prejudices, and they were cleared away by the end of the tours and discussion.

This student exchange was so powerful that we began talking about what our next steps were going to be — steps to share this experience with the student body at our schools. The reality is that there are people who aren’t so open minded, but we all agreed to take this step-by-step, knowing that not everyone will get it but that we cannot let that get in our way of change. The determination coming from every student is real.

This experience was so important to me because we are stronger together. Communities coming together is the most powerful and influential way to bridge the gap that separates us. No matter how different two groups seem to be the truth is always that we are stronger together.

Ani Vazquez is a senior at Manual High School and the school’s head girl.

Photo Credit: Chris DeRemer


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