A Brownsville School Brings Conversation Of Race Inside The Classroom, Empowering Students

Jamel Floyd protest. (Photo: Adrian Childress/Bklyner)

BROWNSVILLE – To bring the conversation of race inside the classroom and to give a platform for the community to voice their feelings and be heard, students, mental health counselors, and the administration at Brooklyn Collegiate Preparatory High School created a social justice task force.

Following the recent Black Lives Matter protests across the country, Rosana Shields, 36, a licensed mental health counselor with Counseling in Schools (a social services organization) and the Community School Director of Brooklyn Collegiate Preparatory High School (located 2021 Bergen Street), decided to create a virtual space for students to talk about the protests and the underlying issues of racism. What was supposed to be a short session, ended up running for over an hour with two follow-up sessions. In the middle of the forum, students began talking about the importance of their voices. And now, it has turned into a student-lead activism task force in the school.

For Shields, having these conversations is necessary; especially in a school located in Brownsville– a predominantly Black community where many students have witnessed police brutality. Students need a space where they can feel heard.

“To me, Black Lives Matter is a movement to bring attention to injustices and police brutality and change systemic racism. Historically we are a nation that was built with the belief that black bodies are not equal to white bodies (and other races),” she said. “Black Lives Matter means just that – Black lives matter. The Black community should have the ability to thrive without being treated as second class citizens. There needs to be true equality – structurally, institutionally, systemically, economically, politically, etc.”

“Working as a counselor and working in schools,” she continued, “I witness daily how systemic racism (such as important parts of Black History being excluded from the curriculum, gentrification in communities, lack of access to resources) impacts our students and their families.”

Posted by Kiki Finesse on Friday, July 17, 2020

The task force includes two students from each grade. Kiairrah Graham, 18, is a recent graduate of Brooklyn Collegiate Preparatory High School. She explained that while she always had a love for history, the murder of George Floyd was what pushed her to do more research specifically on Black history and Black lives. Above, is a video made by Graham about the task force.

“Black Lives Matter means so much to me because we have been fighting for our lives since our existence came about. We’ve been oppressed since 1619 and it’s still going on for exactly 401 years, 6 months, 13 days (as of the day I’m answering this question),” she said. “It’s time everyone recognized this is a problem. We are people too and we deserve the right to live freely like every other race. We shouldn’t have to sit our younger kids down and tell them to be careful and to comply with rules because they are Black.”

She explained that the task force was essential for the students in her school, the community, and for every Black person.

“This is to show that we are educated and we understand what’s going on today and that we want change. The youth are often portrayed as the ones who never pay attention to the news or what’s important in life, but that is not true for all,” she said. “A lot of us do pay attention and we do speak on what’s bothering us, so this is a time for us to use our voices and be heard.”

While students virtually meet among themselves to discuss everything that is happening in the country, they are also planning on meeting with elected officials. Additionally, student leaders are advocating for teachers to highlight marginalized history that is often not taught in school textbooks. For Graham, this is an important task.

“History as we know it today has been fit to portray the idea that it’s always been ‘White America.’ They teach us in school that everyone who first walked this earth or whoever was superior were of caucasian descent. But that is not necessarily true,” she said. “These textbooks and history and everything we know has been made to show that white people have always been on top and that every other race was inferior to them. Teaching kids history that is not in textbooks will show us what the world was really like and you wouldn’t have to learn that by educating yourself or asking questions. I need to see this happening so that our minds can no longer be corrupted!”

Jada Jones, 16, a rising Junior at the school, agrees.

“… We all need to know our history whether it’s good or bad. We need to know the events that led to the world we live in being the way it is,” she said. “More African American history needs to be taught because people react to certain situations based on what they know about it. Maybe if people know more their reactions might be different.”

“This school-sanctioned task force is important because now kids have a way to be a part of the change and can voice their opinions on issues. It’s also the safest way for us kids to support the cause because it’s something that we can do without having to be outside during the pandemic,” Jones continued. “We do this through our school because Brooklyn Collegiate always listens to our problems and tries to find a way to make it better. We’re just a big family and we support each other’s ideas.”

And for Graham, this is all personal. She hopes that the work continues in her school even though she had graduated.

“Personally this means that I am standing up for what I believe in and that I am helping others who may need that push to speak up for their community and their beliefs and ideas. Personally, this makes me feel good about myself because I’m not just doing this for me, but for the entire world and that is what makes this so special to me,” she said. “I hope that my high school task force picks up wherever I leave off or continues to grow and educate the minds of others and themselves. I have big dreams for them in the future and I am confident that they will achieve them.”

For now, the task force will continue to meet during the summer to discuss ways to create change. The students have also requested to start a social justice club during the school year to continue to learn about the history that is not taught in classes– this program will be hosted by Counseling in Schools. According to Shields, the school administration is also looking at different ways to enhance the curriculum to include more social justice issues, African American history, and a variety of other topics.

“The school-sanctioned task force is important for several reasons. Led by the students themselves, it helps them realize that their voices are important and can help to start change on a local level,” Shields said. “It’s also part of a bigger movement that will help to make change on a larger, systemic level that needs to occur.”

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Zainab Iqbal

Zainab is a staff reporter at Bklyner who sometimes writes poetry in her free time || zainab@bklyner.com

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