116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - The time is now to speak up against racism and inequality.
This is the message both to peers and residents in a video celebrating Black History Month from the Cedar Rapids Community School District's Black Student Unions, an organization working to build up a community of Black students at Washington, Kennedy, Jefferson and Metro high schools.
In the video, Cedar Rapids students and staff share the joys and acknowledge the challenges of being a Black person in the United States. The video is educational and showcases poetry, spoken word and honest conversation.
While students couldn't host a traditional in-person assembly at their high schools because of the coronavirus pandemic, they still wanted to have space to express themselves and celebrate their heritage, said Kimberly Abram, a Jefferson High School counselor.
The students had the idea to put together a video that could be shared with other students. It will be available Friday on the district's website at cr.k12.ia.us.
Martine Niwe, 16, a sophomore at Jefferson, read the poem 'Who Can Be Born Black” by Mari Evans for the video.
'Who can be born Black and not sing the wonder of it, the joy, the challenge,” Martine says, reciting the first lines.
Martine said the poem resonates with her because it's about coming together and 'celebrating what it means to be Black.”
'It's important we rejoice in it,” she said. 'That's a message we put in the video. It's important to share Black voices and celebrate Black history that in the past has been overlooked, but it's coming to light now.”
Progress will not come until Black history and the history of racism in America is told so 'truthfully and consistently” it becomes 'American History,” said Abram.
'It's important for all history to be told and told truthfully,” Abram said. 'I believe the reason we have Black History Month is because our country collectively has done a fantastic job of ignoring facts and not addressing their own egregious behavior.
'Black history is being made right before our eyes,” she said. 'They do not have to go 100 years, 50 years or 30 years in the past. We can look to just six months ago.”
Black students especially have spent this past year marching in Black Lives Matter protests, educating themselves and their friends about race inequality, living through a pandemic and then an Eastern Iowa derecho that damaged their schools and homes.
Abram said she wanted to affirm them by having adults in the video collectively present the message, 'I see you. We see you” in addition to the student's message of 'the time is now.”
'I want to remind them that what's gotten them this far will carry them through the next stage of life,” Abram said.
Wilsee Kollie, 17, a junior at Kennedy High School, wrote an original poem for the video, which she titled 'Voices.”
'Don't stop speaking your truth on what you believe in. Your voice makes a difference. It helps people around the world realize your worth. It helps you realize your worth. Things are going on in this world, and we can't keep silent. No more! Not ever!” Wilsee's poem says.
Wilsee also is a student at the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, a summer program that teaches Black students about Black history, literature, math, science and college prep.
'That was my first time learning about my history, and I was able to grow,” she said. 'It changed my life.”
In the traditional school setting, Wilsee said the only Black history she was taught was about slavery. 'Point blank. Period,” she said.
Wilsee hopes when her peers and community members watch the video, they become more curious about Black history, and think about what they need to change to be more inclusive.
Wilsee said she still is learning and is working on using her voice to stand up to people who use racial slurs.
After 16 years working as a counselor at Kennedy, Rachel Collins said she is noticing a culture shift, and more staff are engaging in 'rich, honest and vulnerable” conversations about race.
While there's still a long way to go, she said she feels hopeful.
'Black History Month education is important, but it's not an ending spot. Our investment needs to be in valuing all of our students all year round,” Collins said.
'The pinnacle of an equitable educational culture will be one where multiple perspectives are valued and representation is given to all populations, rather than continuing to perpetuate a whitewashed Eurocentric narrative.”
It was the student's idea to put together a video for Black History Month, Collins said.
Collins noticed they were feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and she brought in LaToya Harrington, district diversity recruiter, to help come up with content and edit the video.
Collins said the students have not been given enough credit for their equity work in the district, including starting the Black Student Unions.
'They've done this. This is them. It's their credit to take,” she said.
After George Floyd, a Black man, was killed last summer by Minneapolis police officers, protests for social justice swept across the country. In Cedar Rapids, Rahma and Raafa Elsheikh, Kennedy High School seniors, approached the school board with action items on how the district could better support Black students and students of color.
The district is working through initiatives to elevate student voices and incorporate cultural competency into professional learning for staff; and has committed to reviewing curriculum for equity; continue hiring a more diverse staff; and implement better supports for families.
'I don't want to see those demands put on the back burner. The pandemic cannot be an excuse for inequality,” Abram said.
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