By MADELINE HUGHES
Christel Tonoki stood in the Champlain Valley Union High School gymnasium in front of 1,300 of her fellow students last week, gathered for a school-wide assembly for Black History month.
A few dozen students stood with Tonoki as she told her story, how during her freshman year she created a book on Black Lives Matter. How a fellow white student took three sticky notes with the letters A-L-L written on them, and put them over the word “Black” on Tonoki’s book. How she recalled being discouraged that the student did not engage and have a conversation with her. And how the student didn’t even open the book to see Tonoki’s work, she said.
“The book is now open,” she said. “We just have to start turning the pages.”
It was a metaphor for a conversation about race.
Tonoki is part of CVU’s Racial Alliance Committee. The student-led committee was created this year by four seniors – Prince Yodishembo, Paige Thibault, Akuch Dau and Katelyn Wong – and they meet weekly on Wednesday mornings.
“We created the club at the start of the school year as we were trying to bring racial issues to CVU’s awareness,” Wong said.
The club asked Tonoki and former Burlington state representative Kesha Ram to speak at the Black History Month assembly. Ram began her speech by thanking the student leaders who organized the event.
“It’s always scary to get up in front of a group, especially of your peers, and talk about something that means a lot to you,” Ram said.
It was about her own political journey that began in college. Known for always speaking out about issues, Ram was asked to give a speech at a 2006 rally at the University of Vermont for then- U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, who was running for the U.S. Senate. Ram was a UVM sophomore.
She told the story of a “rockstar Senator from Illinois” who was also at the rally. He, like Ram, was biracial with an interesting name, she said, which resonated with her, the daughter of a father from India and a mother from Illinois. And he spoke like no other politician Ram had heard before.
“In the middle of all that, he turned to Bernie and he said, ‘You know what Bernie, if you don’t behave yourself, we are going to run Kesha for the Senate instead of you.’ It was the first time anyone encouraged me to run for office,” Ram recalled.
In 2008 when Ram was elected as a state representative, that senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, was elected President of the United States.
“I say that no matter your politics… you never know what will happen when you speak up, doors will open,” she said.
Ram continued talking about her high school days, and her involvement in a club similar to CVU’s Racial Alliance Committee. However, the racial inclusion club at Ram’s high school in Los Angeles was led by the blonde, blue-eyed, white prom queen, she said.
“That was really life changing for me to see that it can’t always be the students of color to do this work, because it’s not their work to lead necessarily. They might not even be the best messengers for people to really hear ‘this isn’t cool, this isn’t how we treat each other.’”
As Ram was driving to CVU she said she heard a news story about swastikas being painted on Jewish gravestones in France, and she knew her message would be hard.
“I’m talking to you all today about how to be better than adults. You know I’m telling you in a time when you aren’t seeing great behavior modeled around the country in Washington, that I’m asking you to be better. And that’s not easy or fair,” she said. “There’s more to it than not painting swastikas, that should be hopefully the easiest to work on. There’s so much more to leading an enriched life and learning about the people around you.”
Ram’s 30-minute speech was met with applause that filled the CVU gymnasium. Tonoki then took the stage, and her speech was met with applause as well.
After the assembly, Ram met with the four student organizers. She encouraged the students to run for office and stay in touch.
“Y’all have some good people,” she said. She mentioned local town boards and committees were also important avenues for students to use to get involved in local politics.
“Run for office,” she said.
In recent weeks there have been racist drawings found at CVU. The N-word was found on a bathroom wall, and a swastika was found on a library desk.
At the Feb. 19 school board meeting, a group of parents submitted a letter asking the district to address those issues.
“Unfortunately, we have all had experiences with racial harassment, anti-Semitism and other forms of harassment in the district that has spanned years,” parent Lydia Clemons read. “We also know families that have left the district because of persistent racial harassment here and what they felt was inadequate protection by the schools.”
The group of parents recommended five actions the board should take to mitigate the issues. The group wants the board to clearly condemn the actions, develop a zero-tolerance policy for acts of hate, add a diversity and inclusion specialist position, increase diversity of staff, and form a parent community action team to help with diversity in the district.
Students from the Racial Alliance Committee asked the board at the same meeting to allow CVU to raise the Black Lives Matter flag every February. They are circulating a petition for students, faculty and parents to sign. As of Monday, over 100 people have signed the petition.
The day after the school board meeting, students held the Black History Month assembly. It was one of the group’s biggest educational events of the year.
The Citizen sat down with the student organizers after the event to talk about how they wanted to start the dialogue about race at CVU.
“Another reason to start this (club) was because we don’t talk much about race,” Akuch Dau said.
The students acknowledged that in the predominantly white school there were issues surrounding race. So, they came up with ideas to open the conversation in school at the beginning of the school year. Students have held trainings about privilege for faculty and other small groups, hosted events to inform people about black culture and history, and recently asked the school board to raise the Black Lives Matter fag.
“As a black student, I’m not the only one faces racial injustice,” Prince Yodishembo said. “In this predominantly white state, racism still exists and recent issues have shed light on that. And that helped me realize this isn’t only an issue in the South, but also here in Vermont.”
And it’s been a learning curve for students.
“I haven’t always been aware of race as a white person,” Paige Thibault said.
Her suggestion for people uncomfortable talking about race: “Educate yourselves. It’s not some colossal strange problem we can’t touch. It’s talking to someone you know, reach out to your peers. Let’s share our experiences instead of debating.”
When asked about her proactive stance, and her ability to admit that she has “privilege”, Thibault said her approach is being open to learning about the issues.
“It’s sort of how you go about life,” she said. “We all learn something new every day, and self- reflection and awareness about racial issues are no different. Adults and politicians largely feel they have to put on this all knowing act. We need our leaders of tomorrow to share their vulnerabilities and say ‘hey, we are humans that mess up.’”
Her fellow students agreed.
“It’s OK to say ‘I don’t know this,’ or ‘I hadn’t thought about this before’, especially regarding an issue like race,” Yodishembo said. “It’s OK to admit not knowing something.”
And it’s important to start this conversation when they are young and still learning, Dau added.
“It’s OK to be uncomfortable and vulnerable,” Wong said. “Vulnerability lends itself to great learning.”