CENTER: A social media incident involving the East High Head Girl renews a school wide conversation on race relations and student equity. By Allie Kelly, Audrey Abel and Maddy Levin.
The seats were arranged in a semicircle, each student facing a classmate opposite. Heads turned to face the speaker, standing in front of their folded plastic chair and holding a wireless microphone. Voices bounced off of the walls of the Calloway Gym as questions were asked and answered.
As more students got their turn with the microphone, others quickly raised their hands high above their heads, both listening and considering what to add to the conversation. Between speakers, participants would quietly reach into their lunchboxes for a sandwich or a handful of pretzels. It was all in the name of equality, of discussion, and of solutions.
A CHALLENGING CONVERSATION
The forums hosted on September 11th and 13th, however, discussed a topic that was more controversial. A few days prior, a Snapchat message had circulated around the social media of students and the administration. The photo, sent by the East Head Girl, Phoebe Fanganello, contained a racially-charged joke towards African-Americans that was offensive to many. Although removed from its original context in a private conversation with a friend of color, some argued that racial humor is never acceptable.
“It could really offend or hurt someone,” says sophomore Abbey Bridges. “Yes, people make mistakes. But I think everyone in the school needs to be mindful of what comes out of their mouths. Because once it’s out there, it will stay out there.”
“I think everyone in the school needs to be mindful of what comes out of their mouths. Because once it’s out there, it will stay out there.”
“[Racial humor] is demeaning and reduces entire races and cultures to common stereotypes,” adds sophomore Sam Shikiar.
Students at these recent equity forums, which had been scheduled to specifically discuss the incident, offered a variety of feelings and opinions. The former Head Girl, too, apologized for her actions and invited further conversation, hoping to learn from the experience. Fanganello announced that she would be stepping down from her leadership role. The Senior Class President, Ajala Way, has taken her place alongside Head Boy, Cole Finely-Ponds.
“[A] lot of people shared their own opinions and [the equity forum] allowed them to feel more welcomed where they hadn’t before,” says a sophomore, who wishes to remain anonymous.
East High began hosting monthly equity forums in the spring of 2018, shortly after John Youngquist returned as principal. The meetings are meant to promote inclusivity within the community, recognizing and respecting the diversity of the staff and student body.
“[We are] focusing on how we are a diverse community that is working together in gaining value from that experience,” Youngquist explains. He hopes that this opportunity for engagement will help students and staff gain a better understanding of the complex issues that face the East community.
THE INFLUENCE OF EQUITY
For fifty minutes, students also spoke on concerns beyond this single incident, commenting on the influence that insensitive humor and social media have on perpetuating negative stereotypes. Discussion leaders felt that these issues are especially relevant to the culture and appreciation of diversity at East and in the greater community. “[We] need to talk about problems more, and help the students understand one another,” Bridges continues. “East High School tends to try to push all the dirt under the rug and hope for the best. It’s not good for the students.”
“Not all of [the issues] are solved for and represented and grown within one hour’s experience.”
Many students had ideas for remedial measures and plans for the future, but, as the discussion went on, it became clear that a consensus would not be reached within the time allotted. “Not all of [the issues] are solved for and represented and grown within one hour’s experience,” acknowledges Youngquist.
But it’s a start. And a start to a larger, more meaningful conversation where students and staff of all background have the opportunity to listen to one another. Youngquist believes that equity forums are vital to the success of East High School.
“We get to have twenty-six hundred students here from every corner of our city–from every ethnic, cultural, economic, and academic background,” he explains. “We get to be here together. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. It really doesn’t.”
However, Youngquist recognizes that equity isn’t simple, “[This diversity] is an advantage for us all, and it’s not always easy for us either.”
Together, the community hopes that the discussion that was triggered by the Head Girl’s Snapchat will continue to shape the future of representation at East High. The discussion does not end here. As the school moves forward, efforts to expand diversity and mindfulness remain a common goal. Small measures are already being taken, and it is important that, in the spirit of equity, all voices are heard.
The discussion does not end here.
“Make [classes] more racially diverse,” suggests sophomore Kylie Wells. She is concerned about the lack of minority students in Honors and AP courses. She hopes that, if the classroom more accurately reflects the individuals in the student body, positive, concrete change can occur.
Wells touches on a similar theme that was the topic of the equity forums of Spring 2018. The members of Angels for AP Excellence, now called Equity Angels, considered how to make higher level classes accessible to more student enrollment.
Still, equity goes beyond the classroom. In upcoming equity forums, students, as well as adults at East, will have the opportunity to continue these types of conversations on a variety of equality related issues, including race, socioeconomic status and overall participation in school-related sports and activities.
As East works to recover and learn from the experience, Youngquist urges students to, “represent who we are, who we need to be, and why that matters for all of us as Angels.” He hopes that students and staff will take the time to appreciate the differences and similarities that fill the halls of East with unique individuals, setting on a shared mission for change. This begins with monthly equity meetings.
“I think that more equity forums would be really helpful in making sure all students’ ideas are heard, and to make everyone feel welcome…” the anonymous sophomore agrees. “[We] have a great feel and a great community here at East.”
“Make everyone feel welcome.”
As the school year progresses, the East community will continue to work towards achieving sustainable solution for the complex social issues.
“We should be able to walk at East High with pride,” echoes Ubaldo Carrillo, a sophomore. As a Latino male, he believes that students should feel valued for their differences, rather than in spite of them. He stresses the importance that school pride is derived from a sense of unity, and shared identity.
Carrillo understands that this conversation is not yet finished. The debate of racial relations and stereotype-based humor and commentary continues to unfold not only within East High, but throughout the country. Students and staff have the potential to be an example of positive change in this arena, a goal that starts with a semicircle of folded plastic chairs in a fluorescent lit gymnasium.