Southwest Portland teens at center of landmark changes
While historic efforts to combat racism and discrimination within Portland's schools are afoot, Southwest Portland students have been at the forefront of change.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, the Portland Public Schools Board of Directors recognized February as Black History Month, while also unanimously approving an Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppression Learning Community policy banning hate symbols and hate speech from school settings. The policy stems from the Oregon Board of Education's adoption of All Students Belong, which prohibits depictions of the Confederate flag, swastika or noose for any school-sponsored activities, with exceptions for teaching curriculum.
PPS district leaders say the Learning Community policy expands the racial equity and social justice work the district has committed to over the past two years.
"The District unequivocally affirms that Black lives matter. We believe in the fundamental right to human dignity and that generating an equitable world requires an educational system that intentionally disrupts — and builds leaders to disrupt — systems of oppression," the PPS resolution states.
Students at Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School have been doing exactly that. They've been the most prominent forces behind ambitious efforts to address racism, bullying and discrimination head-on. Since 2019, students at the Southwest Portland high school have staged a school walkout, facilitated community seminars on race, successfully lobbied the district to change the name of their high school and most recently, helped facilitate a program called No Place for Hate that's now being adopted in other schools.
No Place for Hate is a youth allyship program created by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that trains and educates high schoolers to become peer facilitators. Facilitators are then empowered to educate others about racism, implicit and explicit bias, as well as intervene and disrupt instances of bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism or hate speech on and off campus.
"The change that is needed in our society starts in our very own community," Yaniv Horenstein, a senior at Ida B. Wells-Barnett High, and No Place for Hate peer facilitator, said.
During a web seminar called No Place for Hate, a Community Conversation About Race — hosted Feb. 3 and streamed live via the PPS YouTube channel — teens opened up about how they're holding their peers, teachers and community accountable.
"Part of being an ally to minorities is making sure they know that they are loved and worthy," Manar Surur said. "You can do this by listening to their stories and giving them the space to express how they're feeling. This will make them feel seen and heard because oftentimes they're overlooked or slandered by the media."
Surur also encouraged allies to "use your privilege to uplift the voices of marginalized communities" by listening, signing petitions, participating in protests and learning how to interrupt racist incidents.
"Use your social media platform to raise awareness about important issues," Surur said. "With that being said, you should really ask yourself, why do you want to be a better ally? It shouldn't be because you want to be seen as 'woke' by other people. It shouldn't be performative. It should be because you want your community to be safe and inclusive for everyone."
Students shared calls to action with pre-recorded video messages during the two-hour seminar, hosted in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League.
Scottie Nash, director of education for the ADL Pacific Northwest, guided viewers on the steps the ADL encourages students to take, whether they hear something in a public space, or see an offhand comment being made to someone online.
The first step? Move away from your comfort zone.
"We must be willing to move from safe to brave spaces," Nash said. "We have to take risks and stand together to create a world of difference."
Jonel Mondero, a peer facilitator, can attest.
"Being an ally is a huge responsibility and it's a responsibility we should all have in our daily life," Mondero told the Connection.
Students like Hui Hui Hutchinson are proof that what Nash calls for is possible.
During his freshman year at Wells-Barnett High — recently renamed from Woodrow Wilson High School — Hutchinson found a swastika drawn on his desk. He said he didn't know what to do and didn't feel like the school had a robust support system in place among administrators or teachers.
"My mom knew about the ADL and she kind of mentioned it once and that spread throughout the students," Hutchinson said. Before long, students were rallying to incorporate ADL's No Place for Hate program on their campus.
"Systems and institutions cannot change to be more inclusive if the people in those systems do not understand the issues," Hutchinson said.
His experience wasn't an isolated incident. In 2019, students at the Southwest Portland school walked out in protest over a spate of incidents in which white students were reported to have called Black students the n-word. Later that year, the first Community Conversation Around Race was hosted by Southwest Portland students.
Following a significant and tumultuous year for the school, fall of 2019 marked the beginning of Principal Filip Hristic's leadership tenure at the school, and the return of Vice Principal Ayesha Coning.
"We knew at the beginning of last school year, beginning of 2019, that a big part of what we as administrators and staff — and also what we were hearing from students and our families — is that we really needed to think about our school culture in a deep way, particularly through the lens of race and equity and through the lens of safety," Hristic told the Connection. "And so we did a lot of thinking about how to do that. One of the things that we decided to do, in part because of suggestions that it came from students and families, was to partner with ADL precisely because we thought that this would create a long term and sustainable partnership. We weren't interested in small fixes. We weren't interested in just appearing as though we were taking things seriously. We wanted to partner with an organization that was doing this kind of work."
During the Feb. 3 seminar, Hutchinson's peers called upon their teachers to prioritize students' physical and emotional safety.
Hristic said the ADL program, coupled with other student action has led to a culture shift within the school.
The No Place for Hate program also has gained momentum. In 2020, the tenets of the program were presented to all freshman at Wells-Barnett. Other schools in the Portland district, including Robert Gray Middle School in Hillsdale, also are incorporating the program.
One of the most historic byproducts of recent student-led racial justice efforts came late last year, when the Portland Public Schools District announced the name Woodrow Wilson would be removed from the high school, following successful pleas from students and the community at large. The school was renamed after Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the pioneering civil rights activist and journalist.
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero credited student activism and outreach for the change.
"It's them who have had the courage to interrupt," Guerrero said. "I know it's du jour during a time of racial awakening, renaming schools."
He said it was important not to rush to erase the problematic past, but to honor the process of student-centered collective decision making. The superintendent, who oversees Oregon's largest school district, noted the importance of "channeling the leadership of today's youth" and listening to students of color who are building upon decades of work by the communities of Black, indigenous and people of color to "disrupt institutionalized racism."
"That was a very carefully and curated process by our youth and kudos to them," Guerrero told City Club of Portland forum listeners of the school's name change. "I really commend them for, you know, not just the main change but the experience and the demonstration that they have now established for other school communities and youth to say, 'let's have a dialogue about it because it's something we can do and it's a teachable moment.'"
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