I was 8 in 1975. That year was Saigon’s fall when refugees fled Vietnam, and later Laos and Cambodia, by boat. All of the kids in my mostly white grade school called them “the boat people.” Until I had a friendship later that same year with Amy, a girl who had come from Vietnam by boat, did I realize how hurtful that label was to the people fleeing to find asylum. It was my Eureka moment, teaching me to choose my words carefully and not just use what everyone else was using.
So, what happens if you never have that moment? What if you don’t grow up seeing people who are different from you?
As of last spring, Mt. Si High School was 83% white, 7% Hispanic, 4% Asian, 3% multi-ethnic, 1% Native American, .98% African American and .4% Hawaiian Native or Pacific Islander. If you do the math, that means there were 73 Asian students and 18 African American students in a student body of 1840. [edit: demographics are hard to pin down because of Covid see schooldigger.com for the latest estimated numbers]
A little research shows that most other high schools’ racial makeup on the Eastside is far more diverse than MSHS. So, is this a possible problem? Two students are actively working to promote and celebrate racial diversity for the entire Mount Si community.
Aileen Cha is the 16-year-old founder of the Diversity Club at MSHS and also runs the MSHS centric podcast, On Your Mind. Here she talks about mental health and, in several episodes, explores the topics of racism and diversity in the high school setting.
A SVSD student since the age of five, Cha says, “The impetus for starting Diversity Club was a forum (organized by the District and students) on Zoom back in June, where we discussed the BLM movement, racism in general, as well as issues of racial equity at our school. There were quite a few MSHS students who attended the forum, and my biggest takeaway was that I was not alone in facing racist experiences at our school.”
After the forum, Cha decided to found the Diversity club so that students of color had a safe place be themselves and belong. Because unfortunately, according to Cha, black, and students of color feel isolated, forgotten, and there is more work to be done to improve the racial climate.
During the podcast, she talks about the racism she has experienced in the past. Teachers have asked if she was related to another student simply because they both are Asian. If she gets a question right in class, it’s not because she studied, it’s because “she’s Asian.” Questions about the size of her eyes or if she eats dogs. Not feeling actually bullied, but feeling like no one calls out the microaggressions either. Not stood up for, not belonging.
“In the moment, I try to brush it off and just tell myself that the person doesn’t know better, but it does take a huge mental toll on me because I always have to be ready to defend myself the next time someone says something,” explained Cha.
Even though most of her experiences may not have been overt, Cha says it can be deplorable at times. There are ignorant racist remarks and slurs thrown around with no significant consequences. Many MSHS students of color whom she interviews say they’ve been attacked with racial slurs, derogatory and insensitive comments.
Cha notes that diversity education is even more critical at MSHS than other schools, saying, “White students at our school are not exposed to that many different cultures and races compared to other high schools in the country. Because we live in such a white-dominated community, it is easy for students not to understand or know the problems associated with racism because they personally have never witnessed or experienced it as much, which is why education is even more important for our school.”
People – particularly in rural or segregated areas – might have difficulty envisioning the struggle that minorities have daily. It is not uncommon for people to grow up without talking about racism. Consequently, they often do not see multicultural education as relevant to themselves.
So, what would she like to see done to combat the lack of diversity and resulting racism she sees? Her answer is to see more racially diverse teachers, speakers at assemblies, and read literature written by people of color authors. She’d like to have more discussions regarding issues in the world and have teachers receive diversity, equity, and inclusion training. She notes student initiative is only one half to the story; the other half are the adults in the building stepping up too. She is thankful for the fantastic administration and staff working on making all of these things happen.
When asked, Superintendent Manahan acknowledges that the District does have some work to do to make sure students do know the route and the avenue they can take to get support from staff and continues to push out information so students learn how to get help.
“Certainly, as a district, we need to make sure everyone feels safe when they have issues around anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, whether that be students, staff, or parents,” said Manahan.
According to Dr. Manahan, every school district develops a yearly school year improvement. SVSD’s current one includes diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Each building will have a goal around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Developing an understanding of what’s happening in this District and part of it will be how we overcome these systemic injustices that we know are happening in any institution,” explained Manahan.
On the possibility of hiring a more diverse teaching staff, Dr. Manahan remarked, “That’s a challenge I think for every District, especially here in the Valley. But again, some of this was put on hold because we weren’t able to go out and do some of the recruiting we typically do. Last year, we intended to make a more far-reaching recruiting effort in terms of going to job fairs to pick up staff, and some of the places we intended to go were known for their diverse population. We plan to do that if we can this year as well, to broaden where we’re seeking our staff from so, we can get a more diverse pool of candidates.”
Cha says District’s response to the podcast has been supportive. She was recently invited to a staff meeting, had the opportunity to speak with all of the teachers, principals, and counselors at MSHS about her podcast and the work she is doing for Diversity Club. By the time she was done, her email was overflowing with support and kind words from everyone.
After all, as Cha says, “The best thing the district can do is to listen to their students. The first step we need to take is to acknowledge and address the problem we have.”
Overall, it appears as though the District is enthusiastic about supporting and fostering immediate and long-lasting change to increase inclusivity, equity, and diversity within their schools and the community. With the District’s self-awareness, their continued and strengthened efforts to make MSHS a safe place for everyone, there’s hope for a more racially inclusive school and District.
[Article by Michaela Issacs and Melissa Grant]