The Day of Racial Reform and Solidarity began (DoRRS) with a presentation and interview with poet Porsha Olayiwola during C-block. Olayiwola was the 2019 Boston Poet Laureate and focuses many of her poems on her experiences as someone who identifies as a black, queer woman.
Olayiwola shared two poems: one on the career of former Celtics superstar Bill Russell and the impact he made on and off the court and another on a microaggression at a grocery store.
After Olayiwola recited the poems, moderator senior Ary Alvarez-Valdez asked questions from the crowd and classes watching live.
In response to a question about how she blends her social activism with her writing, Olayiwola said she focuses on her own experiences and lets those who listen see themselves in the piece.
“[I want] folks who haven’t traditionally seen themselves in a literary capacity to also see themselves in my work,” Olayiwola said.
Olayiwola, responding to a question about how one might recover from a microaggression, said students should acknowledge it and then practice self-care.
“Just validating your natural emotions and how you feel is super important. Then I think indulging in some kind of joy and saying, ‘This is really strange. It hurt me because of this thing that it did, and now I need to go and take a walk or read a book or watch TikTok [is also important],’” Olayiwola said.
Olayiwola said she is hungry to learn as much as she can and tell stories through her work. She said she’s dedicated to finding success through her storytelling.
“I’m really interested in being a dedicated scholar, or even warrior, associated both with poetry as it’s written and published and also as it’s performed. I really would love to spread my history to audiences here and also nationally and globally,” Olayiwola said.
An applause followed after Olayiwola shared that after being pushed out of an unwelcoming slam poetry group, she and a friend saw immediate success by starting their own.
“[Some poets] started to get on the mic and be outwardly homophobic, and then there was even on that particular night, an eruption of sorts, where people suggested violence,” Olayiwola said. “We never went back to that particular poetry slam. Instead, we started our own poetry slam and then we won all three national championships for the last three years.”
In her final remarks, Olayiwola said that students who are interested in writing poetry should not start simply by reading and writing as much as they can, but also by sharing their work.
“I think the most important part is to share your work,” Olayiwola said. “Share it with your friends, read it to your parents, form a small poetry group if you can, or share it to the community; I think that’s really the way to go.”
“Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable”: TED talk and class activities
The Day of Racial Reform and Solidarity continued into E-block with classes watching a TED Talk by Luvvie Ajayi Jones titled “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Students then examined scenarios in which microaggressions unintentionally harmed others and worked to understand how each microaggression could be dealt with.
Jones’ TED Talk focused on her process of leaving her comfort zone and the power that words can hold when fighting for change.
Jones introduced herself as a “writer to critique the world,” working to make the world a better place through her words. Jones discussed the idea of change caused through a domino effect: when lined up correctly, a line of dominos will fall with only the push of the first one. Jones wants to be the first domino by speaking out against oppression.
“For a line of dominoes to fall, one has to fall first, which then leaves the other choiceless to do the same. [With] that [first] domino that falls, we’re hoping that the next person that sees this is inspired to be a domino,” Jones said in the TED Talk.
Jones continued her talk by sharing the journey that led her to becoming an activist writer. She described the power that fear can hold over writers like her.
“I realized fear has a very concrete power of keeping us from doing and saying the things that are our purpose,” Jones said.
However, Jones said she was not content with living a life controlled by fear of the consequences her activism could have on her life as she knew it. She said the dominoes began to fall once she began to conquer her fears. She related confronting her fears to the time she went skydiving.
“It feels like that moment when I’m at the edge of the plane, and I’m like, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ but then I do it anyway, because I realize I have to,” Jones said. “Staying on that plane is comfort to me, and I feel like every day that I’m speaking truth against institutions and people who are bigger than me and just forces that are more powerful than me, I feel like I’m falling out of that plane.”
Jones expanded on when she had to choose discomfort in order to expose the truth. When she was asked to speak at a conference, she was asked to pay to get there, unlike her white counterparts who were paid to speak. She publicly spoke against the targeted pay gap which triggered a domino effect.
“Other women started coming out to talk about, ‘I, too, have faced this type of pay inequality,’” Jones said. “And it started a conversation about discriminatory pay practices that this conference was participating in. I felt like I was the domino.”
Jones concluded her talk by emphasizing her belief that she cannot be the only domino. For change to happen, everyone must step out of their comfort zone and hold those in power accountable.
“It is our obligation, it is our duty to speak truth to power, to be the domino, not just when it’s difficult – especially when it’s difficult,” Jones said.
During D-block, students and staff spoke about their experiences with race and ethnicity as parts of their identity. The block was facilitated by junior Malcolm Urena.
Each of the speakers told a personal story during the 66-minute period. Senior Nemeira Lal was the first to speak and opened up about her experiences moving from India to Texas, and then to Brookline. She spoke about the stark contrast between India’s diverse cultures and those of America.
Junior Sofia Vasquez-Jimenez spoke about her experience as a Colombian-American student. She talked about the different parts of her culture, specifically the music, dance and food, that bring back memories of joy-filled moments with family. However, Vasquez-Jimenez also spoke of a not-so-pleasant memory.
Vasquez-Jimenez recalled a time when she was called a “bitch” by a boy in her predominantly-white middle school, and she said that the word stuck to her chest like a name tag. She called back to this feeling again towards the end of her speech.
“Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is: love, empathy, care, silly, funny, sharp-tongue, but an even sharper mind, kind, wise, inspired, wide-open eyes,” Vasquez-Jimenez said.
Senior Vi Lee spoke about what it is like being both Italian and Chinese, and attempting to balance the two as a biracial person in America. Lee described feeling broken and lost because of the differences in their two racial identities.
“I’ve spent much of my life feeling like a part of me is broken— always suspended between multiple worlds. I can count on one hand the people or media that have made me feel seen and in that visibility there is always an aspect of my identity that gets left behind,” Lee said.
Lee talked about speaking with a dean and feeling that they were someone who could truly see them. Through this dean, they were able to connect with the Asian Pacific American Club (APAC) and meet others who have shared experiences.
Senior Krisha Grigaliunas told a vivid story of an interaction she had had at her private school in Australia as a young girl. She explained feeling confused and hurt when one day, her friends no longer wanted to sit with her. Grigaliunas spoke of the numerous questions running through her mind before revealing what her friend said when she brought it up the next day.
“She held her arm beside mine. ‘What do you see?’ I saw a scratch, presumably from one of the four cats she owned. I saw a blue hair tie that went against the firm uniform policy. I saw a loom band bracelet that would probably land her in detention. But before I could see anything else, she interrupted my thoughts: ‘You’re too dark. You can’t sit with us. Mom doesn’t want me hanging out with terrorists,’” Grigaliunas said, recounting this early memory.
Sophomore Nathan Lopes De Carvalho began his speech with a story about being denied a nerf gun as a kid because another Black kid had been shot by police for playing with one. He spoke of the discrimination he has faced at the high school and critiqued the performative activism that he said has become a part of our high school’s culture.
“Here at Brookline High, we really do think that we are progressive and a liberal group of people but the truth is, we are on a moving walkway and while we think we are moving forward, we are being pulled back the opposite way with our comments, our speech, and our actions,” Lopes De Carvalho said.
Lopes De Carvalho called out “white Brookline” and The Sagamore, expressing disapproval of how Black students have been treated as well as urging both groups to do better to break free from the “moving walkway.”
“Do not gloss over or sugarcoat racism. Do not think that pin-pointing us in front of the class while talking about slavery is helping either. It’s not our emotions they play with, it’s our lives and careers too. I shouldn’t be considered stupid because of my own race by my own school newspaper. Yes, The Sagamore,” Lopes De Carvalho said.
Junior Tina Li shared her journey of personal growth and public speaking. She recalled feeling confused by classmates asking her ‘Where are you really from?,’ and even more confused by her mother’s instinct to let this discomfort go. Li shared about having spoken with a teacher about the incident, and her subsequent feeling of liberation that she carries with her now as she continues her work in activism.
“Once I could assign words to my struggles, I no longer had to hold all the shame and guilt of being alienated against as a 12 year old. Finally, I could claim back my identity that the boys in seventh grade had stripped away. For the first time, I felt an overwhelming feeling that I now know as liberation. For the first time, I gained a voice I never had. ” Li said.
School Within a School (SWS) learning mentor and alumnus Mike Lewis spoke next and shared how he has utilized his own childhood experiences to better support the Black community at the school. He talked about growing up in Roxbury and what it was like to feel more accepted and understood on the streets than in the high school.
“Instead of trying to understand me or help me, [the high school would] rather babysit me. The thought of spending seven hours around people that were different and didn’t want me around was toxic. Constantly transitioning from one guidance counselor to another, and after a bunch of different plans and different therapy tactics, I remember vividly being told, I’m running out of chances or ‘at some point there’s no way we can help you graduate,’” Lewis said.
Junior Katherine Torres-Perez took the stage next, speaking about her background as a first-generation immigrant with a Guatemalan family. She spoke about the microaggressions she experienced from other students and their parents throughout elementary school.
“When [my mother would] tell me that I’m too Guatemalan to be an American but too American to be a Guatemalan, it made me feel that I didn’t belong neither in school nor in my culture. [I was] forgetting to think that what was making me beautiful was my brown hair, my brown eyes, my body, my clothing, my culture and my identity,” Torres-Perez said.
Senior Malachi Sealy shared the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on him, and more importantly, the impact of the police brutality that surged during that period. Sealy recalled George Floyd’s death, and the subsequent fear he and his family felt whenever they left home. He then described the time his father demonstrated what to do if he ever got pulled over by a cop.
“I love my dad a lot, but after this, I couldn’t see him the same. He felt so many emotions during that moment and he suddenly felt nothing. He tried so hard to hold back his fears but his body gave out and he collapsed. It was the first time I was looking down at my dad when I [had] always looked up to him,” Sealy said.
Junior Calder Shen, the penultimate speaker, talked about her experience using eyelid tape, which started as a way to make makeup “look better,” but eventually became a part of her daily routine. She said because she had worn the tape for nearly five years, her eyes remain slightly creased, but that she is currently trying to work towards accepting her natural eye shape.
“Maybe if I went back to my sixth-grade self with the experience and knowledge I gained after those five years, I wouldn’t have ever tried to change my eye shape in the first place. Of course, I can’t go back, so I decided to work toward acceptance instead,” Shen said.
Senior Madison Allen brought the speeches to a close by reflecting on the past two years and the COVID-19 pandemic’s connection to social change. She expressed feeling as though the deviation from a normal routine allowed many racial inequalities to come to light. She ended her speech by asking the audience to think about what fuels desire to return to normalcy: nostalgia or a time when discrimination was more widely accepted.
“Can we afford to return to normal if this is where normalcy has landed us?” Allen asked.
Editor’s note: The Sagamore acknowledges the comment made by Lopes De Carvalho during the assembly, and is taking steps to better ourselves in upholding our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. We are continuing and deepening our discussions as a staff to address our biases and determine how to better our practices to ensure that we are a forum that represents all members of our school community.
During T-block, students were offered the opportunity to discuss what they had learned and observed throughout the day.
Hub began with a reminder of important norms to consider while discussing race and ethnicity. This included remembering to speak for oneself, staying fully present during conversations and avoiding triggering language.
Following this reminder, students were asked to form a circle, where they discussed their reactions to D-block’s student speeches, C-block’s poetry reading and E-block’s TED Talks.
Senior Jacquovia Higgs, a member of the African-American Latino Scholars Program (AALSP) who helped to plan DoRRS, said she was proud of the hard work and courage of the students who planned and spoke at the event.
“I was so impressed by how well [DoRRS] came together in such a short period of time,” Higgs said. “I was also inspired by all of the speakers and how they embraced their cultures while also grappling with the difficulties of being a person of color in this environment.”
Senior Rohan Sekhar said he was moved by the second poem by Porsha Olayiwola–who spoke to the high school during C-block–which addressed her response to a cashier touching her hair while she was buying groceries.
“I was very moved by the contrast of the aggressive nature of her initial response, which was that she felt dead inside, with her solemn acceptance of the oppressive reality of the world we live in,” Sekhar said.
Sophomore Jolie Yu, said events like DoRRS are crucial for the community.
“DoRRS is an important event to have at the high school, as it is not only inspiring to hear such empowering stories from our guest speakers, peers and staff, but also because it brings everyone together to recognize such a serious cause,” Yu said.
Freshman Hannah Petersen said while DoRRS did spotlight a prevalent issue within the high school, it also highlighted all of the work that is still left to do.
“It’s great that the high school gave students the opportunity to speak out about their experiences, though it showed that many students still have to deal with racism within the high school,” Petersen said.
The T-block portion of DoRRS ended with the reading of a closing quote, which was a lyric from “Strength, Courage & Wisdom,” a song from R&B singer India Arie’s album Bamboozled.
“Strength, courage and wisdom,” Arie said. “It’s been inside of me all along.”
Students observe the various works of art by students of color, highlighting their work in the center of the celebration. LAURA CLEVES/SAGAMORE STAFF
Amid the excited chatter of students and vibrant music resounding through 22 Tappan, the Day of Racial Reform and Solidarity (DoRRS) came to an end with an after-school celebration on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 12:30 p.m.
Dean and Spanish teacher Astrid Allen, who helped organize the event, said the idea to have a celebration after the day’s events was in large part inspired by the annual pride festival held after Day of Dialogue.
“Over the years, students, mainly students of color, have let us know that these days can cause harm and bring up past traumatic events, making them feel more isolated and voiceless,” Allen said. “The pride festivals after Day of Dialogue were met with such joy. They were so powerful and we saw how the community responded to talking about things that were serious and celebrating identities and the diverse communities we have at school. We thought, why aren’t we doing this with DoRRS?”
Surrounding an art gallery with work by artists of color, the event featured tables pertaining to different affinity groups at the high school, including the Asian Pacific American Club (APAC), the Black Student Union (BSU), the Latinx Club, the Middle Eastern and North African Club (MENA) and the South Asian Student Alliance (SASA). Students flocked to the tables, partaking in different groups’ food, games and traditions.
Senior Vi Lee, who co-organized the celebration, said their intent in organizing the festivities was to make sure students of color felt they had a celebration of their identity.
“Oppression takes the front seat when we talk about race,” Lee said. “There are all these amazing aspects of culture that don’t get talked about as often, especially at school, between different racial and ethnic groups, and I think it’s really important to highlight that.”
ACE social studies teacher Laura Honeywood, stated that making space for Black, Brown and Asian joy was key in the organization of the DoRRS celebration.
“Often when we talk about race, students of color are really beat down and angry by the end of the day,” Honeywood said. “Race is not something we should be ashamed of; arts, food, and culture are things that allow us to explore and share and celebrate. There’s more to our identities than the pain that we experience.”