Gaining influence

As Carlie Monroe stood in front of about 20 students at Oregon High School last month, the senior asked her fellow students, representing a variety of races and backgrounds, “What have you experienced?”

She didn’t have to explain her question or provide detail before seven of them immediately raised their hands.

The students, all members of the Multicultural Student Union, which Monroe founded a year ago, each listed racist remarks, microaggressions and cultural appropriations they had witnessed or experienced over the past week alone.

One year ago, at the first MSU meeting, six students of color sat around that circle showing support for their peers and sharing stories. Now, the group numbers 40 in all and regularly draws 20 students or more every Thursday.

But today it is more than a support system, Monroe said. The organization is gaining influence and the three pillars are meant to make OASD a supportive, safe and comfortable place for all students.

It pledges to tutor, create awareness for white educators and be a support network for students of color in a district where 87.2% of students self identify as white, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Monroe and other MSU students frequently meet with principal Jim Pliner and OHS counselor Alyssa Pon-Franklin to discuss ways in which the district can be more inclusive.

In September, Monroe spoke at the annual Welcome Back Conference, where she presented to the entire Oregon School District. And Monday, Dec. 2, the group delivered a formal presentation at an all staff OHS faculty meeting with an informational PowerPoint, educational activities and personal testimonies from five students.

MSU students regularly tutor others to close the opportunity gaps and are spreading their services to Rome Corners Intermediate and Oregon Middle School.

Pon-Franklin is the only educator of color at OHS, not including the aides or janitors, she said. Soon, the avid MSU supporter said she will be leaving the district to accept a position at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

At the group’s first meeting, she recalled, she asked the students if they were comfortable in the building.

“Every single student said they felt like they didn’t belong,” Franklin said.

Today, however, the voices of MSU are amplified and students hope to be heard from school to school to ensure all students feel as if they belong.

MSU students welcome everyone in the building to their meetings to learn and share stories, and it is partially why they used the word “multicultural.”

At last month’s meeting, there were white students participating, plus three white teachers, Pliner and the shool’s police officer observing.

“I’m very supportive of our Multicultural Student Union,” Pliner wrote to the Observer in an email. “This is a wonderful group of students who have so many strengths. The MSU helps provide a voice for students and it is important that these stories are heard. The stories there reaffirm the importance of the work that we, as a school and as a district, have committed to doing. The stories also convince me that we have more work to do.”

Sharing stories

At MSU meetings, students share their personal stories with one another and discuss current events and issues.

During the Nov. 14 MSU, a female student from India said she had been asked two weeks earlier if she was an African exchange student. Then, after sharing a water bottle with a peer, she heard someone say, “Don’t drink out of that bottle now, Indians have diseases.”

At least three black students rhetorically wondered why white students always wanted to touch their hair and ask why they don’t talk more “ghetto.”

Another student, who self identified as Asian, said she faced another peer who yelled “ching chong” to her multiple times in a classroom.

MSU member Deja Smith said she hears remarks like this often. And sometimes students claim they are just trying to be funny or didn’t have the intention of making a hurtful statement.

But Smith, who has a black father and white mother said that it doesn’t matter the intention.

“Just don’t say it,” she said.

Students also talked about Marlon Anderson, Madison West High School security guard, who was fired and subsequently hired back after public outcry when a student called him the N-word and he repeated the word to instruct the student not to use it.

They also discussed the ethics of reading the N-word out loud from a book like, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Spreading awareness

The microaggressions and racist remarks the students discuss need to be addressed in the moment, Monroe told the Observer.

One way MSU students plan to address this is by bringing awareness and educational tools to teachers.

First, they invite teachers to their meetings every week. They want their stories to be heard and they want teachers to intervene in the classroom when they hear things like, “You can be our Spanish dictionary,” or “That is so gay.”

“It is important for (educators) to know that is is not the job of a student color to be teaching their peers,” Monroe said. “It bothers me a lot seeing a student saying a biggoted comment and the students around are the ones saying, ‘It is not OK.’”

Smith told the Observer the club hopes to see teachers intervene more readily when they hear an inappropriate comment, rather than shy away from it.

“Some teachers are more ready to intervene after hearing an F-bomb than they are from hearing the N-word,” Smith said after an MSU meeting.

Monroe said students also want to hear the positive contributions people of color have made to the United States rather than just learning about slavery, the Trail of Tears and Japanese concentration camps in the United States during World War II.

“The idea of, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough,’ starts at a young age,” Monroe said. “If kids are not hearing about the positive contributions people of color have made to America, they are going to think they haven’t made any.”

Making the classroom a place for all students involves adjusting the curriculum, Monroe said.

“I want these kids to be as successful as needed – but the things with a school like Oregon, we don’t focus on culturally relevant teaching. We don’t talk about the contributions people of color have made to society which is incredibly important when teaching students of color.”

Contact Mackenzie Krumme at mackenzie.krumme@wcinet.com.