THE RECENT CONTROVERSY at Boston Latin School around racial insensitivity echoes a nationwide student movement against racism on campus. Using the hashtag #BlackatBLS, students have been sharing their personal experiences about racism at school, with incidents ranging from subtle to overt.
We have a new generation leading the discourse around civil rights and social justice in our country today. From Black Lives Matter to the many coalitions emerging on college campuses all over the country (including Boston College and Harvard University), young people of color are demanding a dialogue, calling for all forms of discrimination to be acknowledged and addressed. The conversation includes interpersonal racism such as slurs in school corridors or on social media, as well as institutional racism, which is often unseen and more destructive to our society.
Racial inequity is a problem we all own. When young people speak truth, we as corporate, political, nonprofit, and community leaders have a responsibility to step up and join them. Avoiding a wide-ranging, honest discussion about this reality with our young people of color reinforces the notion that their opinions and voices do not matter.
Various organizations across the city are focused on helping young people overcome adversity to go on to college and successful careers. Ours (Summer Search) focuses on building social emotional skills through summer experiences and long-term mentoring – fostering self-knowledge, advocacy skills, and belief in one’s ability to be an agent of change.
But we hear from our alumni, as we hear in the demonstrations across America today, that, as they arrive on college campuses and join the corporate world, they aren’t finding those institutions ready to receive them.
What this tells us is that we must do better. We need to equip our students with the language and tools to combat the realities of the systems they will enter. We have embarked on a partnership with the Interaction Institute for Social Change to make our own organization more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, and to improve our programming to give young people and those responsible for supporting them the training, language, permission, and venues to talk about issues of race that are too often ignored. (These strategies were part of the plan put in place at BLS after Mayor Marty Walsh called for a district-wide investigation of race relations in Boston Public Schools.)
Diversity or anti-racism training has traditionally focused on reducing racial tensions by targeting those who perpetrate racism or condone discrimination. While these programs are integral to educating people about racism, building resilience means instilling a strong sense of self and empowerment. It’s about making sure young people of color think positively about their identities and understand that racism flows from flawed thinking and systemic implicit bias. It’s about turning bystanders into allies by empowering them to respond safely and effectively when encountering racism.
There is a pressing need for change in leadership. Young people of color need to see themselves better represented among K-12 teachers in urban classrooms, as well as in business, community, and government roles. And there is a need for more believers –– more adult mentors who possess a “critical consciousness” about racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity.
Through honest dialogue, we can step into the conversation students are initiating and honor the courage and confidence they are showing by publicly naming the problems and beginning to tackle them.
Change takes time, but we’re seeing young people all across the nation demonstrate to themselves and others that change is possible. Some naysayers have called the college campus protesters “coddled kids” who are “weak.” They are wrong. These peaceful protests are a remarkable show of resilience, organization, and self-advocacy. Like the generations before them fighting for women’s voting rights and civil rights, they dare to envision a better future.
It takes courage to acknowledge injustice and stand tall in that discomfort. But the undercurrent of hope in these protests – the confidence that they will prevail – is what resilience really looks like.
Liz Marino is the executive director of Summer Search in Boston.