Ten Wilson High School students told 200 community members what it's like not to be white at their school, during a Thursday, Sept. 26, event at the Multnomah Arts Center.
"Listen to them tell their truth, their experience and their trauma," urged Nicole Watson, facilitator for what was billed as the Wilson Community Conversation. "Replace judgment with curiosity."
Aria Morgan, who identifies as Asian and European, spoke of hearing "jokes against Asian people" in the halls at Wilson. "Kids say they can make those jokes because they have friends who are people of color. It's so sad we can't feel safe in school just for being who we are," she said.
Isa De Los Santos, Black and Latina, said when she was on the track team last year one of her coaches said to her, "You don't look just black. You're mixed, right?"
Eliel Safran, who's Jewish, said, "There are a lot of Jewish kids at Wilson. I was made to feel like we're taking up too much space. It makes a Jewish student feel isolated and unwanted."
Hui Hui, whose family moved to Portland when he was a freshman last year, told of an incident in his geometry class in which his desk had a swastika carved into it. When he and his mom reported that to the then-acting principal, she allegedly told them, "School policy is to remove the desk and forget about it."
"My mom and I felt so sick watching the desk being removed, taken down the hall and out of sight. Once it was gone it was like it never happened. Except it did," Hui said.
Nura Salah, who is African American and Somali, talked about some upsetting experiences in her U.S. History class. In one case, she said, the teacher spoke of having dual citizenship in the Unites States and Europe and asked if there were any students with dual citizenship.
"When no one answers, she stands right in front of me and repeats herself, 'Anyone else?' and wouldn't move until I had to visibly say 'No' and shake my head. She assumed I wasn't from here," Salah said.
Based on this and other incidents, Salah asked to transfer out of the class and was told by the administration not to talk about her experiences, "Because kids talk and she didn't know what she was doing.
"She (the teacher) made me feel so unsafe, uncomfortable and disrespected, like I didn't even matter, that I was inferior because of the scarf I wear or the amount of melanin in my skin," Salah said.
Aslan Newsom, an African American and Native American sophomore who heads the Black Students Union at Wilson, recalled an African American friend who last school year had a "very bad experience" with a white student who was expelled from Wilson as a result. Her friend left Wilson. "He didn't feel safe. Now he's gone," she said.
"This is stuff we don't get to forget about," Newsom said. "We're going to school tomorrow. We don't want to be here tonight, we'd rather be home studying so we can get into college but we're here so you'll hear us and make changes within yourself, your family and your community."
The Wilson Community Conversation was put together by Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran and the president of the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association.
Meieran has a daughter who is a sophomore at Wilson. She told the audience that she and other Wilson parents were getting incomplete reports last spring about a series of incidents that lead to Portland police being called to the campus and a walk-out and teach-in by Wilson students of color.
"I knew nothing. It was shocking to hear about these experiences. So I asked my daughter, 'Is this happening?' and she said, 'Oh yeah, mom, it's totally happening.'"
The event was attended by Andrew Scott, Michele dePass and Eilidh Lowery, the three newest members of the Portland Public Schools Board of Directors. Scott is a graduate of Wilson. Also in attendance was Suk Rhee, the director of the Office of Community and Civic Life, which is embroiled in a dispute with neighborhood activists like those who organized the event.
Wilson's new principal, Filip Hristic, thanked the students on the panel and told them, "What you did tonight took a lot of courage. What you did tonight is not something I could have done when I was in high school.
"I feel inspired, I feel sad and I feel confused," Hristic added. "And I feel a bit daunted by the task of being the new principal of Wilson High School, a school that has gone through a lot. I feel the weight and responsibility of making sure we're not going to make the same mistakes. As much as I feel daunted, I feel inspired and even more convinced that Wilson is where I need to be."
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