Fighting for 'a seat at the table'
On Saturday, July 25, student leaders of Students Advocating for Equality (SAFE), accompanied by about 50-60 other students and community members, continued their calls for change and racial equity with a demonstration at Centennial Plaza.
Since June, the three student leaders — NHS President Molly Izer, ASB President Josiah Rothwell and ASB Senior Class Officer Jake Billard — have been circulating a petition to ban the Confederate flag from school campuses, create a system of reeducation for students who use racial slurs or don the Confederate flag at school and also create elected positions designated to give students of color and of the LGBTQIA+ community a voice on campus at Sandy High.
"Forty years have passed. Forty years since our first plea to ban this flag," Rothwell said in his opening comments at Saturday's event. "Forty long years of a school board silencing its students in fear. Forty years of Sandy's children suffering. Forty years of eight grown adults — adults responsible for shaping our future — demonizing and silencing (their) children. This ends with us."
Rothwell added that he sees now, with the momentum from the national Black Lives Matter movement, as the time for Sandy to really focus on change and ensuring true racial equity, starting with the schools.
"There are moments where we can affect change. For a few seconds every decade, we exist. These are those seconds," Rothwell said. "This is a beautiful time. Furthermore, this is a revealing time. Look around you. Take note of who is here. These are your friends, your allies. Look, too, at the empty space. Take note of your classmates sitting in silence. Look at your phones and see those who've decided that now is a time for their face. Who've decided their pride takes priority over our suffering. All of those who have chosen silence have chosen the side of the oppressor."
For much of the demonstration Saturday, the gathered group of 50-60 masked students and community members simply stood along the sidewalks on Pioneer and Proctor boulevards with signs saying "Black Lives Matter," "Teach Truth," "We are just kids, we are not supposed to be heroes" and "It's not Black vs. white. It's Everyone vs. Racism."
Oregon Trail School Board Member Nicole O'Neill attended, though the school board as a body has declined the SAFE leaders' requests for a meeting thus far. She encouraged the leaders in their effort and stood with them at the demonstration holding a sign that read "We're not here to start violence. We're here to stop it."
O'Neill encouraged those in attendance to reach out to all board members and make sure their concerns and accounts of specific experiences are heard and to also virtually attend the board's workshop on racial equity at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 30. The district has yet to release the link for the workshop, but The Post will be publishing more information about the event as it is available on Tuesday, July 28.
"You guys are so well organized," O'Neill said, praising the student group during the open mic portion of the event. "SAFE is doing such an amazing job. The more people that come to the board workshop on (July 30) … the more people that do this, the more powerful it looks and the clearer it is that this is a real issue."
Co-organizer of SAFE Jake Billard also spoke at the event, highlighting how he once admittedly was complacent in ignoring the alleged harassment and racial inequity to occur at the school. He sees the school and administration as having "gaslighted" and "delegitimized" the trauma of students of color by not enacting stricter school policy against the use of hate speech and symbols sooner.
"Imagine being in school one day and that hate turns toward you," Billard said. "Now it's you that they threaten, call slurs and harass for something that is completely out of your control. I can imagine it. Because, during my junior year, I came out as LGBTQ+ and I got the smallest taste of what students of color have faced for years. But the truth is it shouldn't have taken someone calling me a fag when walking down the hall to make me realize what we owe to each other. We need to confront bigotry as it happens and support the victims, not just stand by and continue on to class."
In the more than three hours that representatives of SAFE demonstrated in downtown Sandy, there were a few countering sentiments thrown at them. A few drivers flipped them off as they drove by and one man was witnessed yelling the n-word out of his vehicle while driving down Pioneer Boulevard. The group kept their demonstration peaceful and no one actively came to counter them peacefully or otherwise.
Of the 50-60 people gathered, a few were from neighboring districts around the state.
Corbett High freshman Nina Price was among the non-Sandy students to attend.
"(I came out today) because it honestly doesn't have anything to do with politics," Price said. "It has to do with human rights. Just because (racism) doesn't affect you doesn't mean it doesn't matter. I think it's really important in kids' growing up and their lives that they have the same chances and opportunities and that it is equal."
Cheyenne Holliday, a Sandy High class of 2014 graduate, also attended. She has been involved with the Sandy STAND UP Movement as a community member of color and was on the panel for the city's recent listening session about racism.
"(Racism) was a very big problem (at Sandy High)," Holliday said. "I think it's important to listen to the youth in the community."
SAFE Co-organizer Molly Izer also expressed the need for this effort to start in schools, and specifically in Sandy schools.
"The real fight for racial equity statewide does not begin in urban areas like Portland. It begins in rural, white areas where oppressive culture is most prevalent," said Izer. "If we can win here, there is no reason we cannot win anywhere else. … As we have learned the past month through our campaign, if you are a student and you have something to say, you have to demand to be heard. We have learned to expect a seat at every table and refuse to be silent until we are given one."
SAFE leaders will be attending the board workshop on July 30 and hope to speak during the public comment section in an effort to affect the policy looked at that evening.
While not as many out-of-town friends attended the Saturday event as leaders might have hoped, they are not discouraged.
"We're proud of those who came out to support our protest, yet we still have a lot of work to do," Rothwell said. "We need to look at the empty seats, and to look at all of those who didn't attend and tell them that they should be here. That it is our collective responsibility to look out for those suffering within our school. Those who choose silence, also choose the side of the oppressor. It is time for every Sandy member to stand up and be a part of the movement."
"We are pleased with how the protest went. While we expected more people to show, we were pleased with the passion and enthusiasm that was shown by those who attended," Izer added. "Racial equity begins in schools. It begins in places of education. It is our job to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to include student voices. We have made progress towards that today."
The SAFE petition is still live online, and has received more than 5,600 signatures since June. The students are keeping track of where those signatures are coming from since the change.org site opens the effort up to anyone.
For more information about SAFE, find the group on Instagram.
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