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New Urban High School seniors lead art project to celebrate Black History Month

PMG PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN  - New Urban High School seniors Gabe Davis (from left), Mia Castille and Dayana Ruff led 14 students in the Struggle to Get Stronger art installation for Black History Month.New Urban High School students packed Black History Month with activities to honor African Americans. The theme was people of all races rising above legacies of oppression.

In one of the North Clackamas alternative high school's many black-history artistic activities throughout the month, 14 students volunteered to create a "Struggle to Get Stronger" installation. Starting with silhouettes of each artist's face, the Oak Grove students added inspirational quotes and colorful backgrounds for the Feb. 20 public showing.

Set up similarly to last year's "Audacious and Unafraid" art exhibit for Black History Month, New Urban students hung their pieces from large sheets of butcher paper in the school's auditorium, which forces viewers to walk among the artworks and at times become completely surrounded by the team's artistic efforts.

In a concept suggested by New Urban senior Dayana Ruff, who also came up with this year's theme, the student artists invited viewers to write about struggles they've overcome on a paper crown and add anonymous comments. These included phrases like "domestic violence" and "sibling separation" on a collage of crowns on one of the sheets.

"Black people in this country were all once scared of being lynched, but now we can stand up for what's right and get stronger," Ruff said in explaining the artistic concept to "transform struggle into strength, so we don't lose sight of who we are and the hardships of the people who came before us."

Ruff added, "I've been through struggles, and I'm willing to get stronger, and whether you're black or white, you should always wear your crown up high and be proud and royal."

On Feb. 13, New Urban students held an "Unarmed and Unforgotten" ceremony to honor Trayvon Martin and 99 other unarmed African Americans who have been killed by police or on neighborhood watch since Martin's death in 2012.

In a nonmandatory assembly, more than 50 New Urban students and staff attended a reading of the 100 names, as volunteers lit candles and dropped paper-cut handprints for each name.

Five students led the ceremony along with school staffers Grant Cunningham, Bjorn Nelson and Annarie Wergeland. They read more than a dozen descriptions of activities the victims were engaged in at the time of their deaths. After each example, like "sitting at a traffic stop," "babysitting," "playing basketball" or "having a mental health crisis," they chanted, "don't shoot!"

"We thank you for joining us in hope, in solidarity, in strength, fortitude and love to acknowledge this terrible loss and ensure that these unarmed black neighbors, brothers, sisters and fellow community members are not forgotten," Wergeland said to the crowd.

New Urban senior Mia Castille, one of the student leaders of the "Unarmed and Unforgotten" ceremony, told the crowd that "we stand together, in peace, to honor 100 black people whose lives were taken brutality, violently, unjustly."

Castille has participated in various marches and other organized political activities after experiencing racism on a regular basis, she told a Clackamas Review reporter prior to the ceremony.

"I've been raised to stand up for what I believe in," she said. "If I see racism happening, I call it out."

PMG PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN  - Participants in the Unarmed and Unforgotten ceremony at New Urban High School included Grant Cunningham (from left), Addison Salimi, Dayana Ruff, Mia Castille, Gabe Davis and Annarie Wergeland.Castille also was among the 14 students involved in the "Struggle to Get Stronger" art installation and was credited in being instrumental in keeping the group on track.

For her own piece, Castille drew a yin-yang symbol over her face's silhouette and included the words "balance, peace and love," which she said represented her beliefs.

Castille credited the collective efforts of all the participants for creating an ultimately successful Black History Month celebration.

"We meet in a group, so we bounce ideas off of each other, and it seems to really come together well," Castille said.

The third student instrumental in organizing the activities was New Urban senior Gabe Davis, whose silhouette featured the Fredrick Douglass quote, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." Davis also saw shared efforts as key to making lasting social change, while acknowledging everyone has a role to play.

"You can talk through things as a group to progress," Davis said, "but you also have to push yourself to meet a new goal or limit in order improve yourself."

As a culmination of Black History Month activities at New Urban, two psychology professors at George Fox University — Amber Nelson and Keleigh Blount — joined an assembly of the entire school to give a presentation on the effect of racism on communities.

Blount, the director of George Fox's Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, is originally from Greensboro, North Carolina, where she worked as a community outpatient therapist. She earned a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling and a doctorate in rehabilitation counseling from North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black college.

Nelson joined George Fox after earning a doctorate in clinical psychology and working for three years as a pediatric psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute & Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. While there, she assisted in the Sickle Cell Transition Clinic and Cystic Fibrosis Center as well as in the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Pediatric Psychology Outpatient Clinic, Neurodevelopmental Sleep Clinic, Neurodevelopmental Sickle Cell Clinic and Center for Diversity.

New Urban Principal Andrea Lockard noted that the school benefits from various mental health resources for its students who report impacts from childhood trauma at a higher rate than the North Clackamas School District average.

New Urban has mental health counselors on staff and has received a grant from Clackamas County to provide a peer mentorship program.

PMG PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN  - Students take home roses after an Unarmed and Unforgotten ceremony to honor 100 African Americans who have been killed since Trayvon Martin's death in 2012.

Students inspired by talk

Amber Nelson and Keleigh Blount said that, although they are both black women, they came from very different backgrounds to become George Fox University professors specializing in mental health concerns.

"Black culture is not a monolith," Nelson said.

In the question-and-answer period after the talk, one New Urban High School student from East St. Louis related to a portion of Blount's talk in which Blount described growing up in North Carolina and feeling out of place when she moved to the largely white Portland area.

Meanwhile, another New Urban student was inspired by Nelson's story. Identifying as gay and growing up in a small town, the student asked Nelson to discuss more about what it was like growing up in Klamath Falls as the only person of color in her class.

Prior to the talk, Nelson and Blount led the students in an exercise intended to show how sharing details about themselves with neighbors can feel good, in an effort to destigmatize therapy and make discussing personal stories not scary.

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