Nearly three hours after the final bell rang throughout the halls of several Denver high schools, class was just beginning for a room full of educators in the Denver Public Schools.
Leading the night’s lesson were the students, eleven brave individuals from the Young African-American and Latinx Leaders (YAALL), a group formed in response to a study by Dr. Sharon Bailey, who was commissioned by the district to help its leaders better understand the experiences and challenges facing African-American students and educators.
While the Bailey report detailed various inequities toward students and educators of color, this particular evening offered students a chance to speak their own truth about the experiences that have both scarred and motivated them to reclaim the culture and dignity they believe was once stolen from them.
The EdTalk began with every educator standing.
“Sit down if you’ve ever assumed a student of color speaks another language,” the first student directed.
“Sit down if you’ve had lack of faith or expected failure from a student of color,” another student followed.
Class was definitely in session.
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable
When everyone was finally seated, the students clarified their point of the exercise, which was not to cast blame or shame, but instead to reveal the implicit bias that creeps into the minds of even the most well-intentioned educators, forever altering the experience of so many students—students like Kevante Hobley.
Against the backdrop of a large image that read, “Just because I’m black,” Kevante shared his experience with a teacher whose belief gap made it difficult for him to excel in an honors chemistry class where he was one of just three Black students.
Where I really started to feel the pressure of feeling alienated in the classroom was junior year in honors chemistry. Everyday I was so scared to put my hand up in class, and I felt dumber than everybody else. There was one problem I had that I just could not get, so I spoke to my teacher after class and when I did, the first thing that came out of her mouth was, “Oh we have a great chemistry club class that you can drop down to.” I was so confused because I just needed help with one problem. But she had already jumped to the conclusion that I wanted to drop down a level. – Kevante Hobley
And then there was Deisy Hernandez, an English-language learner up until fourth grade, whose inner battle between the pride of learning English and the guilt associated with forgetting Spanish worsened when a teacher berated a classmate for speaking Spanish right before declaring the classroom an “English only zone.”
Remembering their names
One by one, these courageous students introduced themselves to a room full of adults—many who looked nothing like them—and shared their stories with sincerity, strength, and grace.
“Your students are people, and they have names and stories,” said Jua Fletcher.
If it hadn’t yet sunk in that real students were experiencing real disrespect and disregard for their cultural identities, Esperanza Solédad would give everyone a name to remember.
After transfering to a predominantly white school in fifth grade, Esperanza tried, with little success, to help her teachers and classmates pronounce her name.
“Every single time my name just got dropped on its head so I decided to just change it,” she said. “I ended up changing my name that year to So-lay, and I remember changing my whole identity that year.”
Between the shame associated with disregarding the beauty in her given name and the confusion associated with never truly feeling like herself, Esperanza struggled to find her own identity through her sophomore year in high school.
With a new found confidence and quite the knack for engaging an audience, her message to educators was clear: “Please make us feel comfortable. Give us what we need. Give us what it takes for us to grow.”
Their stories are their stories but they don’t have to become someone else’s
When the last student spoke, the weight of the room lifted as every adult in the room rose to their feet. The standing ovation, while well-deserved, was not what students came for. They came to be heard, and they came to deliver a call to action.
“Don’t think about it; be about it,” said AJ Garcia.
It was simply not enough for the audience to listen to the students’ stories while shakin’ their heads and gasping in disbelief.
And for anyone reading this, the same applies to you. After all, the only way these stories don’t become the stories of other students is if entire communities become active participants in the quest for educational equity and inclusion.
Some of our bravest, most passionate educators on the subject are actually our students. Their assignment to the rest of us is to:
- Become a community stakeholder in their education movement;
- Seek further education on what educational equity and inclusion is about;
- Break your silence and stand with students of color, and
- Work with them, change with them, grow with them and advocate for them.
For more information on the district’s efforts to increase equity and inclusion, including progress made by the African-American Equity Task Force, contact the Culture Equity & Leadership Team within Denver Public Schools.
Video Credit: Ben McKee, DPS Features