Woonsocket Call

Students, staff talk race issues at Cumberland High School

“The youth have the power right now, because we listen to each other.” – Alivia Ekwegh

- By ERICA MOSER emoser@woonsocket­call.com

CUMBERLAND – Looking at the curriculum at Cumberland High School, ninth-grade student Alivia Ekwegh was struck that her school teaches European history and Holocaust history but not African, AfricanAme­rican or Hispanic history. “I felt outcasted,” she said. As a person of color at CHS, Ekwegh is in the minority. The non-white demographi­cs of the school are 9 percent Hispanic, 3 percent black, 2 percent Asian, and 3 percent multiracia­l, Principal Alan Tenreiro said.

Ekwegh wanted to do something to get her fellow students talking about race, so she approached Tenreiro about starting a group at school.

“It’s been on my mind for a few years, especially since police brutality started to occur,” she said, “and the Black Lives Matter

movement came out, and it was a huge epidemic.”

Tenreiro suggested starting with a conversati­on. In the CHS library on Tuesday morning, Tenreiro and Ekwegh held “All Lives Matter – A conversati­on about race at CHS,” a title Ekwegh came up with in an effort to be inclusive.

“The youth have the power right now, because we listen to each other,” she said. “A lot of us don’t listen to adults, unfortunat­ely.”

Four other students and two teachers attended, and Tenreiro hopes the group will grow in the future.

“I’d like it to be an ongoing dialogue,” he said, “so I at least have one other meeting this year.”

After the bell rang and as she and Tenreiro waited for others to trickle in during advisory period, Ekwegh pulled out her notebook to show the principal her conversati­on topic ideas. With some words and phrases highlighte­d or written in caps, a page of her notebook included thoughts and questions on cultural appropriat­ion versus cultural appreciati­on, police brutality and interracia­l relationsh­ips.

“If a Caucasian female is with a black male, some people may be like, why?” she said. Alternativ­ely, she’s noticed black women with the attitude: white women are taking black men away from us.

On May 6, Tenreiro attended the National Summit on Teacher Diversity, held at the U.S. Department of Education.

He learned there that 40 percent of schools nationwide don’t have any teachers of color. Cumberland High School does not have any black teachers.

“We talk about this with a lot of our friends – and we primarily have African-American and Hispanic friends – and we talk about: we don’t see anyone that looks like us,” Ekwegh said of her and her friend Nelson De La Cruz, who also attended the conversati­on.

Ekwegh also told the story of sitting in the car with her mother as they drove through New Hampshire, on the way back to Cumberland from Canada. As other people sped by, she said, a state trooper stopped her mother for speeding.

After the officer gave her mom a ticket and they drove away, Ekwegh’s mother turned to her and commented that she had just been racially profiled.

Ekwegh also spoke about her perception that a lot of students confuse cultural appreci- ation and cultural appropriat­ion, using views of hip-hop music as an example.

“When you have respect for it and you embrace it, that is appreciati­on,” she said. “Appropriat­ion is when you use it as an excuse to act a certain way.”

In the classroom, De La Cruz said one peer keeps making fun of the Dominican Republican.

“The teacher didn’t do anything because she didn’t think it was wrong,” he said. De La Cruz commented that another teacher only ever tells him to stop talking even when everyone else is talking, which he believes may be racially motivated.

But both De La Cruz and Ekwegh praised teachers who they feel have been supportive on issues of race. Ekwegh commended her French teacher, Julia Santos, for talking about race frequently. Santos, who is Portuguese, also attended the conversati­on.

As for teachers who may not be as in-tune on issues of diversity, Tenreiro noted, “That’s a lever with the teaching staff that I can push on, which is: how can we create more diverse mindsets?”

He appreciate­d the opportunit­y to hear the perspectiv­es of students with different background­s than his own.

“I can’t, as a white male, truly, fully understand struggles and those individual issues those students might be dealing with,” he said.

Lisa Parker, a social worker at the high school, commented on something she saw while driving to work that shocked her.

“It was a Confederat­e flag flying off the back of a pickup truck, and it took my breath away,” she said. “I wanted to cry.”

Ekwegh commented that issues around race stem from ignorance and “kids can’t help what they’re being taught, especially by their parents.”

The discussion stemmed from four questions Tenreiro handed to attendees at the beginning of the meeting:

• Describe a time when things were not handled the right way. When issues of diversity were not handled the right way? Has there been a time when you felt unsupporte­d?

• Describe a time when you felt uncomforta­ble.

• What role does diversity play in the curriculum? Teachers as role models? Do teachers have diverse mindsets?

• Talk about a teacher or mentor of color that you had that has made a difference in your life. How do you view the added value of teachers of color?

“We talk about: we don’t see anyone that looks like us.”

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