BY ZACH WILLIAMS | Hundreds of students at Bard High School Early College discussed and confronted issues of race at a teach-in organized by students inspired by the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The event did not only concern issues of police-community relations, though, but also a range of topics, including social bias, the role of art in activism and ongoing challenges to making society more equitable.
The idea at the March 18 event was to channel the energy from the movement from the preceding months into a welcoming space at the high school, at E. Houston and Mangin Sts. near the F.D.R. Drive.
But what began in December as an effort to quickly organize a teach-in about police brutality evolved into something much more robust, according to student-activists.
“It’s different than what we were originally thinking about, but I think it’s amazing,” said senior Mojique Tyler, who was an organizer of the event at the roughly 600-student school.
Back in December, Principal Michael Lerner told the event’s organizers that they would need to take their time to organize a teach-in. They also needed support from faculty as well as the student union in order to broaden the event’s scope beyond issues directly linked to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island at the hands of police. Teacher Meghann Walk — a seasoned activist herself — became the student organizers’ faculty adviser.
“They had to make this transition from being an activist out there to being political in here, which means working with other students who have different ideas,” Walk said.
Students also had to confront the notion that, for many of them, organizing is not the most inspiring element of engineering social change but necessary nonetheless, said Walk. She taught one student, for example, how to use software to assign hundreds of students to the teach-in’s 29 scheduled discussion sessions rather than doing so manually. And serving food at the event would not only assuage hunger, she explained to the students, but also create an additional forum for community-building among them.
At the same time, she said, there were concerns among some faculty members, at first, that an event focused on race could be divisive. Other faculty members coached about 60 student moderators, as well as other teachers, on how to negotiate discussions of race in a positive manner, Walk noted. Guidance staff offered perspective on how to spur ongoing conversations beyond just one day, she added.
By the time March 18 came, the event was ready to reflect the underlying mission of the school itself, according to Walk.
“We’re not just a high school,” she explained. “We’re a high school-early college, and that takes seriously that you don’t just discuss ideas, you don’t just learn about history: You make history by yourselves being engaged with the world.”
The keynote speaker was Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, an intellectual whose focus is Islam’s role in environmentalism, who now works for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. He roused the students with a speech emphasizing the importance of team building while pursuing social change.
Abdul-Matin’s words resonated with activists eager to expand their advocacy beyond marches on city streets, students said later. Following his address, students then participated in more than two dozen discussion sessions, such as “Self-Segregation,” “Burn Baby Burn: Property Destruction & Protest” and “Once You Go Black: Exploring America’s Fetishization of Black Sexuality.”
The event fit into the academic schedule as “Community Day,” an annual event at the school, which in previous years focused on other issues, Lerner said. Passion remained high among students at the end of the day when they assembled for a final discussion of the event. Some students reflected on the new lines of communication created by the event, while others stressed that more needs to be done within the school to deconstruct barriers between students of different backgrounds.
What remained the same after the event, though, is the level of engagement among students at the school, with an ongoing national debate on the role of racism in American society. This month, Bard students planned once again to take to the streets — just as they did almost four months ago, when grand juries in Missouri and New York City announced that the police officers who killed Brown and Garner would not face charges.
(In January, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation yielded insufficient evidence to support criminal charges against the officer who fatally shot Brown.)
Lerner said that activism is nothing new at the school. Yet he could not recall another time in his 13 years at Bard when passions ran as high as they do now.
Fully fledged discussions on racial issues require patience, as much in the long term, as they did during the discussion sessions, according to the student-activists. But just as important, Tyler said, the right kind of space is needed in which these issues can be worked through, as well as a sense that all viewpoints are welcome. Along with another student, he co-moderated a workshop, “Black Until Proven Innocent: Police Brutality in America.”
“The first five minutes were slightly quiet,” Tyler said. “People were processing a lot and it was nerve-wracking. But after that, people really opened up… . It’s not just people at the front of the room talking.”