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Youth of color share their experience

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Yellow Springs High School senior Bryce White hasn’t seen much overt racism in school or in the village. But he does perceive regular cultural misunderstandings between people of different backgrounds that, in school, can land a student in detention, or worse.

Dy’Meisha Banks, a peer who moved to the village this year from Dayton, perceives an even stronger cultural divide that makes her as a black female feel judged in a classroom and a town that is predominantly white.

And if it wasn’t racist, the name one local youth used to insult 11-year-old Bayden Jordan at a local park this winter has historically been used enough in a racist context to make it highly offensive to Jordan.

These students spoke this week about their experience growing up as young people of color in a town with a legacy of integration but a current population of about 12 percent African Americans, down from just under 28 percent in 1970. They have also joined a Young People of Color discussion group (Banks is still considering) that provides a culturally sensitive space for youth to dialogue about being a person of color. The Young People’s group, sponsored by Project 365, will convene its first session this Friday, May 15, 6–8 p.m., at Antioch College McGregor room 113. The group is open to all Yellow Springs elementary, middle and high school youth of color and will be facilitated by educators and other professionals in groups according to age. Snacks will be provided.

The Young People’s workshop is the result of the recommended action steps from the March 21 forum, Mixed Race and Other Stuff, and is also a follow-up to the Young People of Color forum Project 365 held in spring 2014. The Young People’s forum is initiated by a group of about 15 local teachers and adults of color, many of whom grew up in Yellow Springs, who want to address the lack of diversity in town and support minority students growing up without the mentors they had as kids.

According to local resident Sterling Wiggins, he grew up in the village in the 1970s with lots of African-American mentors, including his principal, many of his elementary and high school teachers and coaches, the police chief, the fire chief and his barber. And when an incident very similar to the one Jordan experienced happened to Wiggins on the school yard, Ms. Sampson, an African American teacher, saw it and helped him process it right away.

“As a person of color, I knew I had people watching out for me, and I didn’t have to ask them to do it,” he said. “You don’t have that as much now, so what is it like to be a person of color in Yellow Springs today?”

Partly the Young People’s forum aims to provide support and networking for local youth. But organizers are even more keen to listen, Wiggins said.

“We want to see what they have on their minds — part of our job is to listen because things here have changed,” he said.

At the middle and high school, for instance, where Iyabo Eguaroje and Aurelia Blake, both women, are the only black teachers, students’ actions can be misconstrued, especially for students from urban areas, many of whom are African American. According to White, urban students are often loud because they come from a more active place. And bringing that loudness to a rural environment that’s accustomed to being more laid back, “I can see people think it’s scary,” he said. That may have been why, for example, when a black student he knows got permission to go the bathroom and was subsequently questioned by another teacher in the hallway and the student raised her voice, she got in trouble.

The teacher “got mad at the student because the student raised her voice, but she probably wasn’t intending to be disrespectful,” White said.

The lack of common ground and understanding between people of different backgrounds makes Banks, a YSHS junior, uncomfortable. One white student has bullied her at school, others have asked why she “talks white,” and she has also overheard conversations such as, Person 1: “You’re acting stupid!” Person 2: “That’s because I’m black!” Though for the most part Yellow Springs has welcomed her as a new student this year, Banks still feels “more comfortable around people of the same race because we have the same experiences.”

“Most black kids have a rough childhood, so they can connect over that. Also our hair is different, and we sometimes talk different — people say ‘hood,” she said. “A lot of times I just stay to myself in case, because I would feel judged for being different.”

According to Wiggins, these feelings shouldn’t have to be born alone. They should be shared and processed.

“These are heavy, heavy experiences — how do you process that? How do you handle these experiences?” Wiggins said. “And people say, ‘That doesn’t happen in Yellow Springs.’ Yes, it does. And if no one helps you, prepares you, it can leave you devastated. That’s why it’s so important that we give our young people a safe space to talk about these things.”

Longtime Yellow Springs teacher, principal, coach and counselor John Gudgel has been jumping on those opportunities to talk to students of color about issues unique to them for over 30 years. And he has supported hundreds of youth in all of his roles. But Wiggins doesn’t want to leave those critical discussions to chance. He wants all youth of color who are interested to have a set of friends and mentors and a regular place to bring up issues and talk about them.

Jordan’s mother, Palmer, who grew up in the village in the 1990s, also wants to help her son to embrace his unique cultural identity as part Gullah and part Puerto Rican. She is helping Mills Lawn teacher Mikasa Simms and local parent Cyprian Sajabi to run the workshop for youth in grades K–6 to focus on making self portraits and discussing their physical appearance versus inner character as well as their family heritage and diversity issues.

Ultimately the Young People of Color group will evolve into what the youth want it to be. With a strong group of mentors, including Blake, Eguaroje, Gudgel, Wiggins, Palmer Jordan, Gerry Simms, Mikasa Simms, Karen Christ, Leslie White, Kelvin White, Brent Robinson, Steve McQueen, Oskar Robinson and Wayne Baker, meaningful connections are almost unavoidable. This network is needed more than ever now, Wiggins said, in an era in which a black president and murmurs about a “post racial society” coexist with gross racial inequities in housing, healthcare and employment, as well as the experiences of personal discrimination that happen still today.

“It’s like Julian Bond said, ‘To ignore color is to ignore the consequences of color,’” Wiggins said, quoting the civil rights activist.


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