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Black students feel ‘powerful,’ seek to create change by sharing stories
Student union hosts ‘Voices of the Voiceless’ open mic night
CEDAR RAPIDS — Kennedy High School senior Jasmine Hite is learning to love the person she is and even how to properly care for her hair and skin as a Black girl — lessons she partially attributes her peers in the Black Student Union.
Hite, 18, joined the student union — an advocacy group for students of color — this year. She occasionally had felt “excluded and alone” and was looking for community.
On Friday, she shared her experience during the Black Student Union’s “Voices of the Voiceless” event, an open mic night in the high school’s auditorium, as someone who is adopted and the only person of color in her family.
“Straightened or relaxed hair was the only way I felt beautiful. But I don’t have to have relaxed hair to be beautiful,” said Hite, adding that her mom “tried her best” and braided her hair when she was growing up.
She is learning more about racial discrimination, saying that she now knows to keep her hands visible at all times if pulled over by a police officer. It’s a matter of “life and death.” Hite said.
Hite was one of more than a dozen high school students who spoke about their experiences being Black in a predominantly white school system, learning to accept themselves and working to make positive change their community, city, state and beyond.
This is the second Voices of the Voiceless hosted by the Kennedy High Black Student Union. Last year, the students used the platform to educate their peers on why the use of racial slurs, which they said were commonly heard in the school’s hallways, is inappropriate.
Cora Collins, 15, a sophomore at Kennedy High, said the Black Student Union is helping her find a place in a school system where many of the students “have never had a Black teacher,” she said.
Cora said she feels “like I have a lot of power when I read something I wrote. I think what I have to say can make a difference. There’s so much power in writing something and knowing your friends will listen to what you have to say.”
Jenny Schulz, a lawyer and executive director of Kids First Law Center, was also invited by students to speak Friday. Kids First Law Center provides legal representation and services for kids and restorative justice coordinators to schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
Schulz commended the Black Student Union for using student voices to create change. In 2020, students in the Black Student Union at Kennedy High asked the school board to remove school resource officers from district schools and for classes to include more Black history, literature and art.
Since then, the Cedar Rapids school board has examined the program and set joint goals with the police department to reduce arrests and charges filed against all students by 50 percent or more, and bringing a 50 percent or greater reduction in the disproportionate number of arrests of Black students.
Last fall, a new contract between the district and police department removed full-time officers from Cedar Rapids middle schools.
“Here, you all who might think you’re powerless made this incredible change in the school district,” Schulz said. “You met with police and school officials and came to these really boring school board meetings. You showed up, you stood up and you spoke up.
“It was your voices at these podiums that made the difference,” Schulz said. “It made everybody pay attention and it woke up people like me and made us like and say, ‘Why are we arresting kids at school when we send them there to learn?’”
Rachel Collins, co-sponsor of the Black Student Union and school counselor at Kennedy High, said she is in awe of how these students advocate for themselves and others, ask the tough questions and demand answers.
She also wishes the Black Student Union could be a place where students still can be comfortable and know their worth instead of always feeling like they have to take action.
“They’ve been marginalized for so long (and) feel like they have to keep pushing for change,” Collins said.
Earlier this year, the students were brainstorming ways to celebrate Black History Month in February and felt they have to produce something for the whole school “because no one else will,” Collins said.
"What can you do that’s not as much work for you and can celebrate you?“ Collins asked the students.
Now, the students are hosting a door decorating contest for staff, encouraging teachers in the school to decorate their door with a Black History Month theme. One question decorators might ask for inspiration is how have Black Americans moved the subject — such as history, science, math or Language Arts — forward, Collins said.
They also are throwing a Black gala, similar to a prom, and a trivia night oriented around Black History.
“Those were things that brought them joy,” Collins said. “They do all the work. They deserve all the recognition.”
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