'Enough is enough!'

Students rally against injustice before, during 'America to Me' town hall

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By Michael Romain on 'America to Me'

Staff reporter

Roughly an hour before a four-hour town hall, based on the documentary series America to Me, was scheduled to start at 6 p.m. on Sunday inside Oak Park and River Forest High School's Little Theater, a group of students, parents, teachers and community members rallied around a defiant theme outside the high school's main entrance. 

They wanted the town hall audience to know that despite the 10-part series — which aired over a period of two months on Starz — the school's race problems are far from resolved. 

They also came armed with a series of structural demands that they said would address OPRF's many racial inequities and what they feel is the school's atmosphere of racial insensitivity. 

The demonstrators had plenty of present-day examples to bolster their claim. On Nov. 2, Oak Park police were investigating a racial epithet scrawled on a shed near the high school's tennis courts. "White power," it stated, and "F— Dancing N— Anthony Clark," referencing the popular activist and OPRF teacher who helped organize Sunday's demonstration. 

The week before, one of 15-year-old sophomore Naahlyee Bryant's favorite teachers used a racial epithet three times in class. Jordan Murray, an OPRF senior, said he woke up one morning a few days before the rally to find his car spray painted. 

"The writing said, 'F— you, go Trump' and all of these things," Murray said. "When I looked on Facebook and heard about what happened with Mr. Clark, I started to believe I was being targeted." 

Murray said he helped write "Crossing Austin," a student play performed earlier this year about how the nearby Chicago community of Austin is stigmatized within Oak Park. 

"In my opinion [that play] is the reason I'm being targeted," Murray said. "This needs to stop! We can't sit idly while things like this are happening around us." 

As the students voiced their concerns, they were encircled by a crowd of roughly 100 people, including OPRF Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams and District 200 board President Jackie Moore.

John Eligon, the New York Times national correspondent who was due to moderate two panel discussions, observed and took notes. Steve James, the longtime Oak Park resident, who was the lead director of America to Me, took out his cellphone and, naturally, started filming. 

Trinity Anderson, a 16-year-old junior who is a member of the Black Leaders Union, said she thought the documentary ended on a much too optimistic note.

"The documentary did not fully tell the true ending of how we still don't have equity today," she said. "It gave a happy ending and that's not what we have at all, actually. The reality is very sad. The documentary opened people's eyes about what we have here, but it definitely didn't change anything." 

Anderson, along with members of the group Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE), have been pushing for district administrators to implement a series of eight demands. 

They include implementing a "student-initiated racial equity curriculum," hiring more teachers of color and ensuring that black history courses are required aspects of the general curriculum. 

As of Nov. 5, a moveon.org petition that the students created to generate support for their demands had garnered 690 signatures out of a goal of 750.

"We want to put pressure on the school to implement more policy that will push against the agenda of white supremacy and against systemic discrimination that we face in the school," said senior Grace Gunn. 

Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams told students during the rally that took place before the town hall that her administration has already taken action toward delivering some of the students' demands, such as announcing in September that the district will begin to develop a racial equity policy and the creation earlier this year of a new HR strategy designed to recruit, hire and retain more teachers of color. 

During a Sept. 18 board meeting, OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse told board members that district officials would work on developing a board policy and administrative procedures "that focus specifically on our commitment to racial equity."  

Pruitt-Adams also promised students more equity-related curriculum changes in the future. 

"I am here because I want to hear you," she said. "In order for Oak Park to come to a different place, we have to have your voices heard." 

But the student-activists were not satisfied with containing their protest to the school's main entrance. 

Roughly a half-hour into the town hall, chants of "Whose school?! Our school!" wafted into the Little Theatre from the student center lobby. 

"What are you going to do differently to help us address this equity issue?" Eligon asked Moore, who quipped, "short of getting arrested … my whole self is in this work." 

Just before the students swung open the doors and walked toward the stage chanting, "Is this Oak Park?!" Moore urged the roughly 350 audience members to listen to the students' voices.

"We have to listen, we have to build relationships," she said. "They know what they need. We just have to be willing to listen and take risks and not be afraid to make change." 

Some minutes later, Bryant took the mic and picked up where he'd left off during the rally more than an hour earlier. 

"When I go into class, I feel like I ain't nothing sometimes, just because I'm the only black in the classroom," he said. "I'm tired of OP throwing us to the curb and just looking at us, saying, 'F y'all.'" 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

Reader Comments

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Bruce Kline  

Posted: November 8th, 2018 9:46 PM

Mr. Gathings: Understood. Point well taken.

Wes Gathings  

Posted: November 8th, 2018 8:31 PM

Mr. Kline, that's kind of my point. I'm merely sharing this sentiment: I have grown up with several friends from the city of Chicago and bordering suburbs who have went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, medical doctors, military officers, principals, administrators, entrepreneurs, graduates of top tier universities etc. that will speak the same way when you leave the room. And the truth, that many of them will not tell you, is they will take note that there is a judgment on their intellect based on them speaking freely. Many of us speak that way because it is familial to us and it reminds us of home. It has nothing to do with ability. I can't imagine how many accomplished people of all colors and creeds relax or even slip into their old dialects and languages when they are home. In fact, I worked with people from South Carolina that spoke geechi and their accent was often masked until they got together, then it was pronounced. Just telling you those assertions, especially if verbalized, are often held against you without you knowing.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: November 8th, 2018 7:20 PM

Well Mr. Gathings, I am reasonably certain your family doctor did not use "ain't" and "double negatives" during his medical school interviews nor during his interviews for internship and residency.

Wes Gathings  

Posted: November 8th, 2018 5:04 PM

Kevin Peppard, my family doctor uses ain't and double negatives. I've known him since undergrad. He's an awesome doctor. In fact I had a problem from a procedure with a specialist and called my friend at 6am one day..he told me come in first thing. Somehow his use of ain't and double negatives did not hinder his quick diagnosis, the opposite of my specialist's diagnosis, and I was back to work 1 week after doing what he told me to do. You might by now gather that I also use ain't and double negatives. A co-worker corrected me and I assured him that having more formal education than him I'd be fine using street language especially knowing his command of proper English, both written and spoken, pales in comparison to mine. I don't take pride in that but I do take exception when someone tries to correct me as if I'm using informal language in a formal environment. If my friend met you...he wouldn't speak the same way to you as he would to me. But if he finds out you based honors class ability, been there done that too, off of using ain't and double negatives I am sure he would use them and double the volume in your hearinging.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: November 8th, 2018 1:15 PM

Kevin - Yes, many of the wealthier black families send their kids to private/catholic to avoid some of these issues. First, we considered Ignatius for our sons but thought it was super important to get real world exposure. Black culture is very diverse with all elements brining color to the greater portrait. I would like to see specific data and analysis to show root cause and correlation of gap. Before we can address, we need to identify core reasons and then we can attack. Just providing classes on equity will not help kids graduate with quality education and be college ready.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: November 8th, 2018 12:52 PM

Student Bryant states: "When I go into class, I feel like I ain't nothing sometimes, just because I'm the only black in the classroom ... " The "only black" makes it sounds like it's the familiar complaint about honors classes. Somehow, I don't think he's in Honors English. with the use of "aint" and a double negative. But to say "When I go to class, I feel like I am not anything sometimes" would be "acting white". As I've written before on this site, two of my Black neighbor households do not send their kids to the public schools, because they don't want a ghettoized culture, which OPRF seems to be promoting, in the name of some vague "equity".

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: November 7th, 2018 8:21 PM

Somehow an Olympic size Pool with seating for 600 is not on the list of student demands? Imagine that. And yet the school board is working nonstop on that pool, despite the citizens specifically voting in a referendum that we did not want the pool either. When is the pool insanity going to stop?

Alex Garcia  

Posted: November 7th, 2018 8:17 PM

It seems that we need another documentary series to follow-up on ths aftermath of the first documentary; and perhaps a new townhall to discuss this other townhall. Also, since Latinos are the fastest growing identity group in Cook County, shouldn't OPRF also require all students to complete a Latino/Hispanic history and racial equity course? So that all identity groups can realize equity, maybe a series of at least five individual race, gender and other similar courses could be added to replace other core currucula, such as math, science and western civ courses? Finally, more faculty and admin hiring plans for those other marginalized groups because social justice.

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