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During the naturalization ceremony of 89 new US citizens yesterday morning, Roger Gregory, Chief Judge of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, gave an inspiring speech that ended with a demand for civic engagement on the part of these new citizens:

“America will need your intellect to seed her fields of creativity. America
will need your imagination to light her path to new discovery. Yes, America
will need your voice to join in its unwavering cry for justice. From this day
forward, my fellow citizens, this is your charge.”

Judge Gregory’s impassioned charge stayed with me all day, and made me think back to the young citizens we listened to in Sabot’s recent community forum. The young people who spoke at that forum are already fulfilling Judge Gregory’s demand: they are wholly engaged, and they are using their intellect, their imagination, and their voices to bring creativity, discovery, and – most of all – justice to our community.

The forum, Agents of Change: Listening to Richmond’s Children and Youth, was hosted by hip-hop artist and teacher Black Liquid, and featured ten young people speaking about the work they are doing to change Richmond.

Lacey McRoberts, a high school sophomore who works with the Cameron K Gallagher Foundation, was the first speaker to take the stage of the Binford Middle School auditorium. Lacey’s voice shook as she spoke about a close friend who had taken her own life, but her voice grew stronger – and sometimes angrier – as she talked about the cruelty of depression and the ways in which we do not attend to young people who suffer from it. She did not regale us with statistics or advocate for specific policy changes; instead, Lacey spoke from the heart about why we must stop stigmatizing depression.

Shaina Cilimberg, who represented Milk River Arts, spoke about the important role art plays in her life and implored us to treat those with special needs respectfully. “Just because I have special needs,” she explained, “doesn’t mean I am not a person.” Shaina also spoke forcefully about the need we all have for friendships and relationships based on genuine regard, not on pity or charity.

Second graders Miles and Evan also spoke about the importance of art as they explained a project they initiated: the Free Kids Studio, a portable art studio that they and their classmates took to several of Richmond’s city parks, daycare centers, and preschools. As Evan said in a letter he sent to Mayor Jones, “At our school we have studios so kids can make their ideas and show what they are thinking about. We think all kids should be able to do that.”

Fourteen-year-old Odessa Hott introduced her cover of Exo’s song, “My Answer,” by discussing the gender assumptions we make both about music and in music: “As a society, we often assume that love songs are automatically heterosexual.” Instead, Odessa suggested, we should try to create a world in which “music can be a space safe for everyone who is different, queer, and imperfectly perfect.”

Building on Odessa’s call for acceptance of gender queer youth, Chandler Wilson and Xander Chapman, who work in youth leadership roles at Side By Side (formerly ROSMY), called on school officials to accept and support transgender youth through very simple changes in practice and policy, chief among them being asking students which pronouns they prefer, and creating gender-neutral bathrooms. Chandler explained, “People need to acknowledge their privilege. Know that just because you yourself may not personally struggle with something doesn’t mean that no one else is struggling with it.”

Asma Iqbal, a 10th grader, reflected on her experience as a Muslim immigrant in Richmond. The oldest child in her family, Asma helps care for her younger siblings, translates for her parents, and teaches at her local mosque. She talked about the experience of being teased at school and the challenge of finding acceptance. Asma, who has become a strong and capable advocate for her parents, her siblings, and her friends, wants to be a lawyer when she finishes her schooling.

Medha Majety, a sixteen-year-old who works with Richmond’s Peace Education Center, noted that many young people don’t speak out because they are afraid “of being judged or criticized.” Instead of strong voices, we get “hoarse whispers and bitten lips.” The answer, Medha argued, is to empower young people by equipping them with skills and building trusting relationships.

In perhaps the most powerful of all the presentations, Jendayi Johnson, a high school junior, spoke in rhyme about racism, prejudice, and discrimination, and told the story of being called the N-word by a white classmate. Jen was angry, defiant, fiercely articulate, and deeply poetic as she explained the damage such language and such attitudes cause. As she finished, the Binford auditorium audience rose to their feet.

We were honored to have several public officials in the audience that evening – and they responded to the speakers with astonishment, wonder, and gratitude. But it was a conversation at the end of the evening, when nearly everyone else had gone home, that may offer the best model for taking this work forward. As the janitorial staff from Binford School was trying to turn off the lights and send everyone home, Richmond’s Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Anthony Leonard, was still engaged in an intense conversation – a back and forth dialogue – with the young speakers from Side by Side, listening to their ideas about how to support trans youth and offering his own opinions about these recommendations. It was the start of an important conversation.

Our next step needs to be to extend this dialogue, a dialogue in which young people and older people – people in power – listen to and engage with one another. Then maybe together we can join in what Judge Gregory describes as “America’s unwavering cry for justice.”

About the Author: 

Lower School Director Susan Barstow brings a strong research background, expertise in curriculum development, and extensive teaching experience to her role as Director of Studies. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Virginia, and her B.A. from Amherst College. She believes that a teacher cannot simply fill students' minds, but must inspire and support them as they construct their own knowledge. Learning should combine joy and rigor; for Susan, one of the greatest rewards of teaching is students' discovery that hard work is a source of pleasure.

Not only has Susan taught in schools near and far, from Richmond to Narok, Kenya, but she has taught at all levels, from lower school to college. Her high school and college experience provide an insider’s understanding of the preparation students need to pursue their education after Sabot, at competitive high schools and beyond.