When Vivian Nguyen hosted a dialogue around the racism that she and other Asian American students faced, especially amid the pandemic, she remembered only a couple people showed up. Nguyen, co-founder and former president of the Asian American Association at Fenwick High School, said the event was open to all her peers, not just those who identified as Asian Americans.
The lack of attendance stuck with Nguyen, who graduated from Fenwick last month. She said she noticed that another event her club held, which included food and an origami activity, saw more than a dozen students.
“That goes to show that people really don’t want to care or are too afraid of doing the serious things,” she said, adding the association was a fairly new organization compared to the other minority student clubs at Fenwick. Nguyen said she sought to create a space for young Asian Americans like herself and other classmates, spreading the message that being Asian American is more than anime and bubble tea.
Nguyen was one of a handful of Fenwick students who actively took part in pushing the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mission forward. Joining Nguyen as DEI Friars are Jasmine Davis and Vaughn-Regan Bledsoe, who recalled their own experiences at Fenwick and the reasons why they decided to step up and take hold of the initiative.
Davis, an incoming senior, transferred to Fenwick from Oak Park and River Forest High School during her sophomore year. Davis recalled feeling lonely, especially as she was one of the few Black students at school. She also remembered dealing with microaggressions from her fellow classmates, some of whom would touch her hair without her permission. Those encounters were “weird,” she said.
“It’s just different,” Davis said. “When you have people who look like you, you feel more included and you feel like you’re being heard more. The lack of Black students and Black staff also impacted me versus [at] OPRF, which is a very diverse school.”
Bledsoe, a recent Fenwick graduate and former president of the Black Student Union, spoke more about the racial comments other students often confided to her. Bledsoe said she just grew tired of hearing students of color continue to experience racial discrimination and felt something needed to change.
Making those changes are a constant work in progress, said Raymond Moland, Fenwick’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Last summer, an ongoing wave of civil unrest triggered the nation and the rest of the world. The protests held were sparked by the deaths of unarmed Black men and women, peeling back the layers of racism and police violence on top of a global pandemic.
“It really continues to open my eyes on bigger conversations that need to take place,” Moland said. “It’s a shame that our students, all around this country – period – have been thrown into this type of conversation. They never had a chance to really just enjoy high school, you know.
“I think a lot of what we’ve seen going on over the past five years or so [is] it’s emboldening people to just say things that before were frowned upon.”
At Fenwick, Moland spoke more about the efforts planned to continue prioritizing the school’s DEI initiative. Changing the hiring policy to include more staff of color and curating monthly events to talk through those tough conversations around race and equity are a couple of examples, he said.
This past April, Davis and Claire Woods, another recent Fenwick graduate and member of the SAFE Club, represented their school at RISE: Catholic Students RISE for Racial Equity. The event brought together over 20 area Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago and sought to provide a place for teens to address racial inequities. The program–which was held online–was done in partnership with DePaul University.
It was an eye-opening experience, Davis and Woods said. Davis said talking to the other students from different schools, listening to their challenges and hearing some of the solutions they came up with were helpful and inspired her to think of other ways to make Fenwick more inclusive.
With the school year now closed, Davis and Nguyen reflected on the work they have done so far and the work that’s to come. Like Moland, they recognized that these conversations are ongoing and will continue beyond the walls of a classroom, and it’s up to them to keep it moving.
“My hope is that our students of color – like people of color in general – we own our culture and our skin,” Nguyen said. “Hoping for an end to racism is not going to happen any time soon. There’s always going to be some prejudice lingering.
“I really hope that everyone can be proud of who they are and not feel like they have to submit to being like everybody else. Being the same as everyone is not cool in any way.”