Alumni, Youth Reach Out For Social Justice At Area School Districts

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Pierson Alum Maya Buckner

By Marisa Valentino

Younger generations of area residents are banding together to advocate for racial justice on the East End, and across the country, including recent alumni from Westhampton Beach, Southampton and Sag Harbor schools.

The groups have organized protests and created petitions in an effort to establish racial equality.

In Westhampton Beach, a group of college students started the group Westhampton Beach for Black Lives Matter (WBBLM). The group was created by David Cable and now has over 90 members, among whom are core members Ella Troutman and Geena García. All three are Westhampton Beach High School graduates.

The group planned a protest in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement in Westhampton Beach. Most recently, they have written a letter and petition demanding the Westhampton Beach School District act against racism and antisemitism.

In Southampton, resident Cecilia Scheuer and other members of Long Island’s United Youth created a petition urging the Southampton School District to promote racial justice.

Similarly, alumni from the Sag Harbor School District wrote a letter requesting improved diversity education. Class of 2015 Pierson High School graduates Maya Buckner and Emily Morrissey played major roles in the writing of the letter.

The nationwide demand for racial justice clearly does not exclude eastern Long Island. As the protests continue, and chants are exclaimed, signs are displayed, and the petitions will be signed until racial justice is established, the organizers hope.

It is evident that the members of WBBLM, Long Island’s United Youth and Pierson High School alumni are among those who have a vested interest in eradicating racism from the East End.

Alumni Request Diversity Education For Sag Harbor Schools

Graduates of Pierson High School came together to request, in a letter to officials, diversity education from the Sag Harbor School District.

The letter titled “Changing the Narrative at Sag Harbor Schools” was written to ask district officials “to integrate lessons about anti-racism and BIPOC history into their curriculum,” said Maya Buckner. Ms. Buckner is a Pierson alum who penned and sent the letter to officials.

The lack of diversity education in Sag Harbor Schools motivated alumni to write the letter, they said.

“None of us can remember a time when we learned about specific Black authors, historians, scientists or mathematicians. But it can’t be that hard to put more Black literature into English classes or Black and Nativie American history into history classes for a start,” said Emily Morrissey, a Pierson alum who helped create the letter.

“I greatly enjoyed my experience at Pierson, but I do not remember there ever being much talk about racial justice,” Ms. Buckner added.

“I think since we live in a predominantly white area, it doesn’t really come to mind to incorporate these lessons into the regular school day, but it should,” said Ms. Morrissey.

Emily Morrissey

“We needed to address that as former students of Pierson High School, and growing up in a very privileged and white dominant area, that it is crucial future students are taught about systemic racism, oppression, redlining, Black History and Native American history,” said Ms. Morrissey. “We went to school in Suffolk County surrounded by towns called Montauk, Sagaponack, Amagansett, Quogue, Patchogue, etc., but we really don’t know the meanings behind these names or where they come from unless we choose to educate ourselves outside of school.”

The large scale objective of the letter was “to get people talking and start making a difference out here, and we decided the best place to start is in our schools,” said Ms. Buckner. “I think it is easy to say that you support the Black Lives Matter movement going on all around the world, but in order to really make a long-lasting difference, we need to start with our school system.”

Ms. Buckner wrote a majority of the letter and other alumni gave feedback and suggestions, she said. For example, Ms. Morrissey suggested they include the need for Native American History in the curriculum.

“Everyone decided to make the email their own and speak about their experience,” said Ms. Morrissey.

Ms. Buckner sent the letter via email to Jeff Nichols, superintendent of the Sag Harbor School District, and a few other faculty members on June 24.

“I then reached out to a number of my classmates and asked them if they would be interested in sending similar emails,” said Ms. Buckner. “Zoe Diskin had the great idea of sending it to the School Board and the Sag Harbor Express. We received a couple of positive responses from Mr. Nichols, and the head of the School Board, although they were not as enthusiastic as we had hoped.”

Before determining what their next steps will be, the alumni will wait to see how the school responds.

“Hopefully, there will be a discussion at the next School Board meeting addressing the issues we brought up in the letter and in our original email. And if that is the case, we hope they will listen to our concerns and maybe even invite some of us to speak more in depth about why it is so crucial to learn about these things at a young age and ask us any questions they may have,” said Ms. Morrissey. “If these things do not get addressed, I think we will have to keep emailing and make a larger campaign. It is time to change the narrative at Sag Harbor Schools. These things cannot be overlooked.”

Ms. Buckner hopes the letter will “get people talking and share our belief with Pierson High School that the school curriculum must be adjusted to include the history and realities that BIPOC face everyday in this country. In order to be truly inclusive we cannot just hold seminars around these topics once or twice a year but must adjust the curriculum.”

The school district has seemingly begun the effort to create a more inclusive environment dedicated to diversity education. They have done so in five ways, listed Jordana Sobey, president of the Sag Harbor Board of Education in response to an email from a Pierson graduate.

First, the district has made The Diversity and Inclusion Committee a permanent committee of the Board of Education. This committee has subdivisions each addressing “the bolstering the diversity of classroom libraries, promoting diverse and inclusive films, increasing professional development on diversity and inclusion, and helping to create a student club on diversity and inclusion,” said Ms. Sobey.

Second, the district adopted the IB program to “give Pierson students a broader world view and expose them to authors and materials beyond what is mandated in a traditional public school curriculum. Now that the IB program has been in place for a few years, the intent to broaden that world view has trickled down to the lower grades in Pierson as well,” said Ms. Sobey.

Third, “this past August, all teachers and staff took part in professional development specifically aimed at diversity,” added Ms. Sobey.

Fourth, “The board of ed adopted the Diversity and Inclusion committee’s recommendation that the District make diversity and inclusion a priority,” she said.

Fifth, the president of the district’s “Shared Decision Making Committee” made an effort to appoint underrepresented individuals when appointing new members.

“While all of the above are a start, there is certainly so much work to be done and I believe the board, the administrators and teachers are always open to finding more ways to improve,” Ms. Sobey said. “I would love to find more ways for our teachers and students to connect and discuss racism, particularly given the recent events and turmoil in our country.”

“It is not just our local schools that we need to push for change, but the American education system as a whole,” said Ms. Buckner.

Petition Encourages Southampton Schools To Promote Racial Justice

Southampton resident Cecilia Scheuer and other members of Long Island’s United Youth worked together to create a petition urging the Southampton School District to promote racial justice.

“This petition is a call to action for our district to actively implicate themselves in the fight towards racial justice, especially given the considerable diversity we have in relation to other public schools around the East End, and also because we believe in the power of education in formulating young people’s emotional and social development,” said Ms. Scheuer, who penned the petition.

“We want to acknowledge that we are aware of the steps that have been taken by the district to make our education system more equitable, but that ultimately there are too many students who are still suffering,” she said. “The action items on this petition will hopefully be able to sustain the momentum in the process towards improvement and equality within our schools, and that is really why we (members of Long Island’s United Youth) made it.”

Ms. Scheuer stressed the importance of the first action item on the petition, which “calls for the implementation of a racial studies course as a graduation requirement,” she said. “This class would be taught by one Black faculty member and one white faculty member to put different lived experiences in direct conversation with each other and guide students on how to appropriately do so,” she said.

She said she believes this course would provide “white students and faculty with an opportunity to reflect and discuss privilege and race in general with their peers as an essential step to addressing individual and systemic inequities in our society, and that ultimately this course will help normalize the fact that our personal perspectives come with implicit biases that can, even indirectly, contribute to these systems of oppression.”

The petition has been emailed to the president of Southampton Union Free School District Board of Education, Jacqueline Robinson. Ms. Robinson did not respond to a request for comment.

“We tried to make the petition in a way that was not too inflammatory and would motivate the district rather than push them away,” Ms. Scheuer said. “I heard from some faculty members that it was discussed at the board meeting last Wednesday with interest. A number of faculty members have expressed their support for the petition, and have also given us constructive criticism.”

She feels that “once we start having more correspondence with the board and those who oppose our demands, we will start to see whether the petition was truly well received.”

The Demand For Racial Justice In Westhampton Beach

The group Westhampton Beach for Black Lives Matter (WBBLM) recently created a letter and petition to the Westhampton Beach School District, demanding that officials act against racism and antisemitism.

The letter is titled “Act against racism in Westhampton Beach Schools.” It was written with the intent to “provide the framework for local reform in the Westhampton Beach community regarding education and racial sensitivity,” said David Cable. The document outlines “nine steps that the District must take to seriously address racism in Westhampton Beach Schools.”

“We are calling upon the Westhampton Beach School District to rise to the historic moment we are experiencing by taking action to advance racial justice and uproot racism and bigotry in all forms, including anti-Blackness and antisemitism, out of the district,” reads the letter.

“To my knowledge, there are no particular measures in place for dealing with racist comments and behavior in a meaningful, restorative, and educational way” said Ms. García, who penned the letter. She explained that the letter was necessary, because “there needs to be a system in place for racist students to sit with their actions or words and engage with them in a meaningful way that allows them to understand why racism is unacceptable.”

The letter was published on change.org and Google Docs so alumni could sign their names and class years on the accompanying petition. It was shared on WBBLM’s facebook group “Westhampton Beach for Black Lives Matter,” and Instagram account “whbforblm.” The Google Doc currently has 72 signatures from WHB alumni. The change.org petition currently has over 300 signatures, nearing its goal of 500.

The next step was getting in contact with officials in the school district. The WBBLM members felt this was a critical step.

Not everyone chooses to continue their education after high school, so it’s crucial that these schools make social differences, power structures, and race part of each student’s education, said Ms. García.

“There are plenty of resources available for educators at all grade levels and of all subject areas to incorporate anti-racism into their curricula. All the district has to do is look for them.” Ms. Garcia said. “We are hoping that we are creating enough of a push to get them to do so.”

“We spoke to members of the Board of Education, who were receptive, but ultimately seemed uninterested,” said Mr. Cable.

Board members and school administrators did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

“We’re going to continue spreading the message throughout the community, gather even more local support and use every opportunity to speak with local elected officials and influential community figures to enact change,” said Mr. Cable.

The work of the WBBLM extends past the petition. The group also organized a peaceful protest in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) in the hub of Westhampton Beach Village on June 6. The crowd of several hundred people powerfully chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Say his name George Floyd,” was their work.

The event was entirely student led, overwhelmingly so by Westhampton Beach High School alumni. The peaceful protest began on The Great Lawn and ended with a march down Main Street. Ms. Troutman said an objective of the protest was “to make it absolutely clear to Westhampton that we will not stand for racism in our community.”

“Racism is alive and well on Long Island. We live in a community of extreme privilege, and it’s high time we use that privilege to catalyze change. We must all recognize the part we play in perpetuating systemic racism and work actively to become anti-racist. Being a true ally demands knowledge, empathy, and ACTION. Anything less is for your own ego and performance,” said Ms. Troutman. “I was super disappointed to not find any protests out on the East End of Long Island initially, and figured that if no one else was going to organize one then it is absolutely our responsibility to start.”

“All of our organizers are extremely committed to the pursuit of criminal justice reform and racial equality in America, and were especially moved by the high-profile murder of George Floyd last month,” said Mr. Cable. “We were spurred to action not only by his tragic death, but by the resolve that other communities on the East End have shown in their own demonstrations.”

Mr. Cable and Ms. Troutman were thrilled by the protest’s turnout. “I was super proud of what we accomplished in such little time, it was less than a week of planning and we had 500-plus people turn out,” said Ms. Troutman. “It was great to see so many familiar faces, and also so many unfamiliar faces.”

“I was, and am, ecstatic and extremely impressed by our community,” Mr. Cable added.
The WBBLM is dedicated to finding effective ways to combat racism in local communities,

Ms. Troutman said. A few projects are currently in the works including a paddle out, petitions to the School Board, compiling resources, and consolidating educational materials on race issues in America.

“Race and racism touch every part of our lives, regardless of whether we want to believe it,” Ms. Garcia said.

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