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Vermont high school raises the Black Lives Matter flag

Vermont high school raises the Black Lives Matter flag

Mic | Published March 1, 2018

By AARON MORRISON, Correspondent

MONTPELIER, Vt.  For Joelyn Mensah, it was the moment when she heard some of her white schoolmates use the word “nigger” more than a year ago, when a black poet performed at Montpelier High School.

For her cousin, Noel Riby-Williams, it was a teacher’s failure to indulge a class discussion around the oppression of black women during a lesson on feminist literature.

And for Montpelier High School principal Michael McRaith, it was a recognition that those and other incidents revealed racial insensitivities among some students and staff, making the black students — only 5% of the school’s population — feel like afterthoughts.

“I just feel like an other, and not really as important as the white students in our school,” Riby-Williams, a senior, said during a recent interview at Montpelier High. “And I feel like, why don’t we learn about things that have to do with my history?”

So in January, after more than a year of consideration and planning, the Montpelier Board of School Commissioners granted a request from the Racial Justice Alliance, a student group created to address racism and privilege among the overwhelmingly white school community. On Feb. 1, they raised the flag of Black Lives Matter, the grassroots movement that became an international phenomenon after the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Missouri.

“We asked for the flag to stay up pretty much forever, until the black students in our school felt like the American flag alone represented us,” Mensah, also a senior, said in an interview. “But the school board decided on allowing it for Black History Month, and then we’re gonna revisit it at the end of this month.”

At a time when national tensions around issues of race, justice and inequality are heightened, it was a risk for the community to endorse a movement that has been derided as violent, anti-police and anti-white. 2018’s national Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools suggests that more and more predominantly white school communities see the benefits of affirming their black students while teaching their white counterparts humility, all in service to a holistic education. It’s a trend that pioneers of the BLM movement, along with advocates of human and civil rights in schools, hope spreads.

“When you allow students to lead, and when adults and administrators step out of the way of students, you get to see a student population that is much more engaged [and] being given the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights,” Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, said in a recent interview with Mic. She reached out to students and staff at Montpelier High after the flag was raised.

“This whole moment around the Black Lives Matter flag, yes, it’s a symbolism of Black Lives Matter — but it’s also a leadership moment,” Khan-Cullors said. “When so much of their lives is determined by their parents, by guardians, by the courts, by a teacher or administrator, they get to say this is what’s most important to me.”

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