Editor’s Intro: We’ve been hearing from educators and education leaders across the nation who are struggling to address the myriad, overt expressions of hatred seen around the U.S., particularly with students who are members of the target groups. Today, Jennifer Fichamba, College & Career Readiness Specialist at Showalter Middle School in Tukwila, Washington, explains how her school stepped up to this daunting challenge.
“How can someone hate me if they don’t even know me?”
That was a question one of my refugee students asked me earlier this year. While I’ve followed the increase in hate crimes since President Trump’s election like many, my heart still dropped as I realized just how acutely the political climate was affecting my students. My school district and community is one of the most diverse in the nation—on any given day you hear languages and dialects from all over the world. This last school year has been intense, and frankly, frightening for many in my school community and in my own community.
The question above may have been asked by just one student, but it echoed the fears of so many others. We’ve had students called “terrorists” because of their hijab or being told to go back to “their country.” Many of our students fear being separated from their families. In response to this, the faculty in my district have collectively looked for ways to support our students, our families, and our communities.
The need has been great! On a regular basis we were confronted with fears of our students as well as their families. Students did not feel safe walking home—parents in some cases thought keeping their children home was safer. We worked tirelessly to address these fears, and we rallied and hosted several events for families to help them navigate through all the new uncertainty, from travel bans to deportation. We jumped into action early and often listening to the needs of our families.
Unifying Our Community Through a Day of Solidarity
One response was dedicating a day to focus on solidarity and social justice. We planned the day around five themes:
Allyship: Learning what it means to support each other
Identity: Learning what makes you unique and how it helps you to be an ally
Empathy: Recognizing empathy in your everyday life
Community: What it means to be a part of community and how we can build solidarity together
Stronger Together: Understanding when we work together we are able to be better support each other
Finally, we put these five themes together so that students understood the full effect of uniting in solidarity. Dedicating a day for this work provided a safe space for students to come together and talk about the issues our community is facing. This also helped students and educators alike learn how to best support each other in and outside of the classroom.
Taking Action to Address Fear and Uncertainty
After election day last fall, we went into high gear and partnered with Colectiva Legal del Pueblo to host a family event to address the concerns of our undocumented community. We also went to numerous trainings to be as equipped as possible to handle any questions, concerns, or situations that came our way. These trainings focused on numerous topics, including advocacy for undocumented students, navigating the new administration’s orders, and restorative justice.
After the first travel ban came out, we immediately worked to create space for our families to get legal advice and partnered with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR lawyers met with families and hosted a Q&A session to address their immediate fears and concerns.
Empowering Students to Take Action
More recently, two of our 8th-grade language arts teachers hosted an activism fair. Students had the opportunity to speak with different people and organizations that are working to make a difference in their respective communities, including: indigenous rights, support for undocumented students, and activism through art. Students walked away with inspiration, advice, and most importantly, the feeling of being supported and heard. The students have since been working on activism projects on topics ranging from immigration and bullying to water rights. When finished, they are presenting the results of their investigations, and their voices are being heard!
Looking Past Hate Toward Hope
While this past election has been cause for great concern for all in our community, I feel hopeful. I am hopeful because of my students! They are bright and kind, and they are raising their voices and standing up to those who are oppressing them. I am hopeful because of our community. What makes our community amazing is the fabric of diversity that is woven in all aspects of everyday life, and despite our differences, we know and respect each other. The families in our community work tirelessly to make better lives for themselves and their children. They are not hiding because things are getting tougher, they are standing shoulder to shoulder with their children, with us, and with others in their community to say ‘We belong here!’
The student who asked me that painful question about hate earlier this year isn’t going to lose her fear overnight, but I’m confident that she has gained some skills to overcome that fear and face hatred and intolerance knowing she’s not alone in that task.
Images courtesy of the author.
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