OPRF student leaders grapple with empowering the whole

The challenge? Extending their sense of efficacy to those left out

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By Michael Romain 'Connects'

Staff reporter

The renowned psychologist Albert Bandura writes that a "strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in many ways," adding that individuals who have strong self-efficacy, or a "high assurance in their capabilities" confront difficult tasks not as "threats to be avoided," but as "challenges to be mastered."

On Jan. 17, five student-leaders from various Oak Park and River Forest High School clubs and organizations gathered in Percy Julian Middle School's auditorium to share their experiences with trying to master the difficult task of overcoming OPRF's long culture of racial inequity. 

The panel discussion — sponsored by Success of All Youth and Wednesday Journal, and moderated by SAY director Linda Francis — included Michela Anderson and Jocelyn Meraz of Students Advocating for Racial Equity (SAFE); Charles Lemke-Bell of OPRF's Student Council; Daysha Walker of the South Asian Youth Club; and Alexia Lopez of ASPIRA (Latin Leaders Club). 

"Having grit alludes to just survival," said Francis. "But having self-efficacy means you're thriving." 

The students articulated their struggles with building healthy, thriving personalities, and advocating for themselves, within a high school culture that can often overlook the particular needs of the less well-off and people of color, among other marginalized groups — particularly those outside of the black-white binary.

"I have Latino friends who are really frustrated, because they see the conversation at OPRF as really black and white," said Lopez.

The binary, other students said, is embedded in gaps in the curriculum. Meraz said that "we don't really learn about Asian or Latino history." Lemke-Bell pointed out that, after telling his counselor that he was interested in Latin American history, the counselor told him that the course no longer existed. That it was no longer an option likely because not enough students enrolled in the course, he said. 

"Speaking for South Asians," said Walker, "some of us are fine with not being noticed." 

"I would like to hear more experiences from people of color, but I can't speak up for them and I'm not really seeing them and I don't know how to help them. If I knew how, I would." 

The students said that, in addition to some marginalized racial groups like Latinos and Asians, there seems to be an entire half of the high school missing from the student-led struggle for racial equity at OPRF — boys. 

Much of the recent equity-related agitation and policy activity at OPRF — from the protests to the public comments at school board meetings to the push for a racial equity course at the high school, which faculty and students are planning to rollout as a pilot next semester — have been led by young women of color. 

The young men, Lopez said, disappear during club meetings. And when they come, they don't contribute much to the conversations, said Anderson, who advocated that, as an antidote to this apathy, people empathize with young men, especially young men of color.

The boys, Anderson said, are following society's expectations for them. Their lives "have been setup" to wear a mask of masculinity that is not necessarily conducive to social change, she said. 

"Having men and boys involved in social movements is extremely important," said Lemke-Bell, the only male on the panel. "I think the best way to do that is to move past the toxic masculinity that defines how we think men should be in this country. Men aren't taught to be emotional outside of the football field or maybe a funeral, if we let them. It's not OK." 

Walker said that in the Asian community, toxic masculinity is "absolutely horrible," adding that young men in her community must "show no signs of emotion or femininity." The "discussion of how men should be treated definitely has to change," because the damage that this inflicts on "sons is really traumatizing." 

Within the culture of OPRF, as in the wider world, there's a general dearth of spaces that allow students, regardless of their particular identities, to be vulnerable, to express weakness, without fearing some kind of social reprisal, the students said. 

When OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse attempted to create a safe space for African American students to talk with each other in 2015, Lemke-Bell said, "It was shut down and condemned by the community." 

This dearth of safe space even extends to white students, said Anderson, who lamented that there are no spaces "for white people to say something ignorant [about people of color] and not feel attacked."  

Self-efficacy, after all, has its limits. For an entire system or culture to change, there needs to be what might be considered collective efficacy, meaning that individuals must feel assured in their capability to effect systemic change while working together, not just as isolated actors, the students indicated. 

"We want to have more action," said Lemke-Bell. 'We need to have more students in conversations with the administration, we need to have more students on committees and in meetings with the administration talking about important issues. I don't think we have enough of that yet."

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).  

Contact:
Email: michael@oakpark.com

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