Empowered city students take diversity on the road

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By David Sheridan

Kenan Mirou and his family emigrated from Syria three years ago. He’s experienced Islamophobia first hand. And he’s acutely aware of the rising tide of hostility toward immigrants unleashed by the Donald Trump campaign and election.

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So when Kenan joined 27 other students from Mission High School in San Francisco and traveled 50 miles north to talk with students at Santa Rosa High School, in the predominantly white county seat of Sonoma County, he really didn’t know what to expect.

And Kenan and his fellow Mission High School students were astounded. At an assembly of more than 1,000 students at Santa Rosa High School, the very diverse group of San Francisco students shared their experiences of what it is like to be discriminated against, and they were greeted with enthusiasm and given rapt attention.

“It’s like we were the missing piece of a puzzle for these students,” Kenan says. And for Mission High student Ana Sara Malaquias, an immigrant from Brazil, “The experience was empowering and life-changing, because it was so clearly eye-opening for the Santa Rosa students, and for us it showed we can make a difference in the world.”

For the students’ social studies teacher Fakhra Shah, the event was all about her students. A teacher at Santa Rosa High had contacted Shah after reading about her in NEA Today, and invited her to speak. Shah replied that it was her students who should speak. The students at Santa Rosa High raised more than $1,000 to make that happen.

The Mission High students’ presentations included chants, poetry and storytelling. Most importantly, as Fakhra Shah notes, “Everything the students presented was their own original work. They brainstormed together, and I stepped back, only giving feedback. I had no agenda except for the students to express themselves and what they’ve learned in our classroom—and to be empowered.”

Briana Boteo, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, kicked things off with a spoken word poem about “tolerance.” In it, Briana reframed the dictionary definition of “tolerance” to reflect the prospective of oppressed people who must speak out against intolerance. Briana, who describes her skin color as “gingerbread,” has experienced racism on the street and in stores.

One of the most powerful presentations of the day addressed the issue of gentrification. Each student held up a letter in the word and recited a short poem which started with that letter. Gentrification is huge issue in San Francisco where low-income people of color are being pushed out of their homes to make room for high-rent apartments for “techies.” Over the past five years, the eviction rate in San Francisco has soared by 55 percent. Every one of the Mission High students has either personally felt the pain gentrification inflicts on families—or they know someone who has.

The other issues the Mission High students addressed were Islamophobia and LGBT rights. As Ana Sara notes, “Transgender people are fighting for their rights and their family’s home.”

At the end, the Mission High students received a standing ovation, and then the Santa Rosa students rushed the stage eager to take their pictures. “I felt like a celebrity—it was exhilarating,” says Mission High student, Garrison Tsui, the son of Chinese immigrants.” Charged up by their Santa Rosa success, Kenan, Ana Sara, Briana and Garrison all agree they’d like to do it again at another high school. They and Fakhra Shah are a part of San Francisco’s Peer Resources program which operates in 33 public schools to empower students as agents of positive change in the community.

“The Santa Rosa presentation was my biggest highlight of being a teacher so far,” says Fakhra Shah. “I saw what happens when I encourage and push students. They reached new heights and gained new skills. It is all the result of our creating community and safe spaces in the classroom. We’ve made it a place where deep thought, reflection and expression takes places and where the curriculum is culturally responsive, educational, and critical.

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