By B. Denise Hawkins
Migrant farm work kept Esbeydy Villegas’ family fed and on a constant move with the seasons. Since age 10, she worked alongside them in the fields, picking nearly every vegetable and fruit from oranges to tomatoes. Looking back, Villegas says she couldn’t be more proud of her parents and the “honorable work” they do.
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But because of who she was—a Latina and a migrant worker—Villegas’ high school guidance counselor tried to steer her away from her dream of attending Michigan State University (MSU) and studying law. Her counselor, also a Latina, “laughed in my face,” Villegas recalled. But the teen’s determination led her to a supportive migrant student advisor who helped her apply to MSU where she is now a student. Villegas was among a panel of five youth activists who shared stories of institutional racism in education with more than 1,000 NEA members gathered here for the Association’s Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women.
In sessions and around the table, NEA members unpacked and wrestled with their own, often complex, painful and resilient stories of institutional racism a year after the Association boldly voted to make the issue front and center. Raquel Abrams-Jackson was one of them.
“The story of that girl and her counselor is my story,” declared Abrams-Jackson, a history teacher at Palm Beach Lakes High School and a Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association board member. Three decades ago, Abrams-Jackson’s high school guidance counselor at her White, private, all-girls school, “expected little of the Black girls despite their academic strengths, and didn’t push to help a group of Black students climb higher.” NEA member Vinson Carithers III listened and nodded as Villegas and the student presenters spoke candidly about being “a suspect in the streets and the classroom,” or having to constantly inform teachers during a history class that all Native Americans didn’t vanish along the “Trail of Tears,” but are very much alive—just like him and his family.
“It shows that institutional racism has not changed,” Carithers said. “It’s just the players and the times that are different, said Carithers a Palm Beach, Fla. teacher and activist.
Also troubling is the majority (91 percent) of the nation’s Black teens who think that the discrimination they are experiencing now “is here to stay,” a new Newsweek survey revealed. In 1966, when Newsweek first asked teens what they were thinking about race in America, some 44 percent “thought racial discrimination would still be a problem for their generation.” Fifty years later, that number (82 percent) nearly doubled. But Villegas and her peers on the panel are not deterred by those statistics. They are coming of age in the era of Black Lives Matter and know the power of a hashtag and smart phones to ignite a movement and unleash a protest.
For 11-year-old Marley Dias, the call to activism began with books. Frustrated by not seeing other Black girls as the main characters in the books in her school library, she decided to take action and make a change. The wildly successful social media project, #1000blackgirlbooks, Dias launched nearly a year ago with the help of her mother, hit a nerve—and has exceeded its goal of collecting and distributing 1,000 books.
The sixth grader already knows that racism and other built-in barriers are “keeping kids like me from reaching our full potential.” Tackling racism, she says, begins with a conversation. In a new national video on institutional racism, Dias looks to educators across the country and asks:
“Do you care enough to look closer, to talk to each other. To your students, to your communities?”
And “To change the dialogue?”