Watch Detroit teens speak about race and activism: ‘If you don’t advocate for yourself, no one will’

Detroit students tackled issues of race during a virtual panel discussion hosted by Chalkbeat Detroit Thursday. (Screenshot)

Lamont Satchel Jr. isn’t interested in declarations of anti-racism by school districts and corporations. What matters to him goes much deeper.

“I don’t need an official statement from you. I want to see it,” said Satchel, a Detroit high school student who was part of Chalkbeat Detroit’s virtual student panel discussion on race Thursday afternoon.

What does he want to see? He wants to see corporations with Black people in positions of power and leadership. He wants to know that everyone, from the janitors to the CEO, have done self-reflection to see if they’re perpetuating stereotypes and if they’re treating Black and brown employees differently than they do others. 

“Are they really saying that they’re anti-racist and having trainings and teaching their employees that?” asked Satchel. “Or are they saying they’re an anti-racist organization to keep their revenue flowing, to keep their workforce strong, to keep their public opinion strong? That’s the question we have to ask.”

During the hour-long conversation, Satchel and four other Detroit students tackled issues of racism, teaching Black history, police in schools, and activism. Well over 100 people, including a number of educators, tuned into the discussion that was moderated by Chalkbeat Detroit reporter Eleanore Catolico and former intern Imani Harris, a Northwestern University student from Detroit.

The panelists were:

  • Ama Russell, a rising senior at Cass Tech 
  • Makiah Shipp, a rising freshman at the University of Michigan and a recent graduate of Detroit Edison Public School Academy
  • Abimifoluwa (Abimi) Onifade, a rising freshman at the University of Michigan and a recent graduate of Renaissance High School
  • Liz Okunawo, a rising senior at Cass Tech
  • Satchel, a rising senior at Cass Tech

 Here’s a recap of what they had to say. See the video below to listen to the full conversation. 

What it means to be an activist:

The students agreed that there is more to activism than marching, chanting, and holding signs. Some of them have not attended any of the ongoing protests since George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. 

Activism, they said, is also about educating themselves and others. 

“To me, activism is any positive action you take to support the movement,” said Onifade.

As part of her volunteer work with a political campaign, Shipp is helping young people get registered to vote. 

“At the end of the day, not everybody’s parents vote, not everybody understands the voting process so that can often discourage people to vote at all,” Shipp said.

Russell, through a group she cofounded called Black Lives Matter in All Capacity, has planned and attended protests. The group’s most recent efforts have involved pushing for the release of a Black teen from Beverly Hills who was sent to juvenile detention during the pandemic for not completing her schoolwork. Hours before the panel discussion began, Russell had just finished an overnight occupation outside the detention center.

“I strive to empower Black people … through education,” she said.

What they wish their history classes taught about Black history:

The students say school curriculums need to delve deeper into black history.

“The only common figures we all learn about is Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks. It kind of stops there,” Satchel said. “We kind of forget the whole other side of Black history, that we had businesses, we had Black power. We had Black wealth. And even though it was destroyed, it still — it helps to know where you come from to move forward.”

“In schools we’re taught the history of slavery and how slavery is abolished,” Onifade said. “It’s not really explained that modern-day slavery still exists in the justice system. That’s what needs to be talked about.” 

What school leaders should consider when discussing police and security guards in school:

Of the five students, Russell is the only one who strongly supports the elimination of police from schools. She said police are more prevalent in schools with large Black and brown student populations, and that leads to the assumption “that our children need some type of reinforcement … they make sure that Black and brown students from K-12 know that you are trained to be an inmate.”

Russell believes money for police officers can be better used to hire more social workers and counselors, and to provide better mental health services to students.

Others, though, said it’s important to provide school police officers with training so they can better connect with students.

“It’s important that leadership, when considering this topic, think more about protecting the students rather than policing the students,” Shipp said.

How white teachers who want to be allies can make the classroom a more empowering and equitable space:

Satchel said the biggest things white teachers can do is to create an environment in their classrooms where students feel free “to express how they feel.”

“The biggest things with my white teachers is authenticity. Just because you’re a white teacher and you say ‘I’m with you,’ it doesn’t mean I trust you. Understand that. Everyone has to build a certain level of trust. We have to move past just words. We have to see action,” Satchel said.

“Kids pick up on BS. We know when people are being authentic. And we know when people are having this little political show of ‘I’m just this amazing and giving teacher and I hear all my students.’”

Community leaders should elevate the voices of young people:

Russell said leaders need to seek out young people and invite them to the table to have conversations. Then, they need to listen.

“You should invite teens to the conversation with the same respect you would any other public official or adult. Make sure you’re honoring the youth in the space and making sure their voice is heard and not minimize them because they’re younger.”

What they want people to know:

The biggest lesson adults can learn is to understand the impact of living with the inequities between Detroit schools and suburban schools. 

“You don’t go through the things I go through,” Okunawo said.

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