MONTPELIER — Main Street Middle School on Friday became the latest Vermont school to raise the Black Lives Matter flag.
The ceremony, organized by the MSMS Equity Alliance, included an assembly, where several students spoke about racial justice, followed by a flag-raising ceremony outside the school.
MSMS is one of about a dozen schools in Vermont that have raised the BLM flag, after Montpelier High School became the first public school in the nation to do so, in February 2018.
“This is a very special day for Main Street,” said Assistant Principal Matt Roy. “It’s a day that I’m really proud of and I’m extremely proud of the equity alliance and our advisers, Ms. (Hannah) Barden and Ms. (Ashley) Dubois, as well as all the students that are part of putting together what we’re doing today in raising the Black Lives Matter flag.”
Fifth-grader Elizabeth Kiberinka led the celebration on behalf of the MSMS Equity Alliance.
“It is very exciting to be here today to celebrate the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag at our school,” Kiberinka said. “We want to share some of the background on the work that the equity alliance had done to make this day possible and some of the reasons that we believe it is important to support Black Lives Matter at our school.”
Sixth-grader Riley Sheehan noted that the movement in Vermont public schools began with the raising of the BLM flag at MHS two years earlier.
“The Equity Alliance was just beginning to meet at that time and started to discuss the possibility of raising the flag here at the middle school as well,” Sheehan said. “We want to raise awareness of the racism that exists in our state and our country, and acknowledge our commitment to work for justice. Just a few weeks ago, we received permission to finally raise the flag here at Main Street Middle School.”
Sixth-grader Gemma Pello said there was racism in the justice system.
“If a white person and an African-American person both commit the same crime, the African-American is more likely to go to jail for longer,” Pello said. “There’s racism between people. You can read about in on the internet all the time, and there’s also racism right here in our community.”
Pello said her mother was reluctant to let her go out alone, afraid she might be the target of racism because she is African-American.
“A girl who lives near me got yelled at because of the color of her skin,” Pello said. “If we’re going to take care of everyone in our school, we need to speak up for the people who are not treated fairly.”
Noel Riby-Williams, a former member of the Racial Justice Alliance at MHS, said she had one piece of advice for the students at the celebration.
“I just want you all to know that you should do things that make your future self proud, and this is one thing that will all make you proud of the future, and I’m so proud of you all, right now,” said Riby-Williams, who is now a health sciences student at the University of Vermont.
Eighth-grader Alara Kahn said she was reluctant to speak at the celebration when asked to do so because she is white and had enjoyed “privilege” through her life.
“Then again, the more I read and the more I learned, I realized racism is everywhere in the world,” Kahn said. “You may say it’s not a Vermont thing, but it is. You drive around and in almost every neighborhood, there’s that one house with a Confederate flag. There’s a history in our town, a hidden one, and who are we to sit back and not acknowledge it?”
Kahn said raising the BLM flag was a way to address a history of racism “to ensure history is never repeated.”
“I do admit I have privilege, a lot of it, and with that privilege comes power,” Kahn added. “I have the power to make a difference in my community, our community. I urge all of you to join me today and raise the Black Lives Matter flag at Main Street Middle School.”
A short video followed, showing numerous people of color through time who had achieved fame and glory for their roles in life, and included political leaders and sporting and entertainment stars.
At one point, seventh-grader Veda Gahagan, broke down in tears when she spoke of the racism she had suffered.
“Every day, whether you know it or not, racism is a part of this world, and even this school, and it needs to stop,” Gahagan said. “Raising this flag is more than an optic ... it means a lot to people. It represents how you feel.”
Gahagan recounted how she was not aware of her skin color until it became an issue in first grade, at first worrying that she wasn’t “white enough,” and then that she wasn’t “black enough” in middle school.
“I wanted to change the color of my skin. I wished my skin was different, but I couldn’t change it,” she said. “That’s just my story. There have been things written on walls and things said to students.
“The shame has not stopped, but none of us should be ashamed of the color of our skin. As Carla Wallace once said, ‘My skin is not a sin,’” she added, to loud applause and cheering.
Seventh-grader Jada Lewis added: “People say, ‘All lives matter.’ If that were true, we wouldn’t be here saying, ‘Black lives matter.’”
Following the assembly, students poured outside for the flag-raising ceremony, which was performed by several students, who took turns to raise the flag before returning to class.
Helping students coordinate the campaign were Ashley Dubois, a special-education teacher, and Hannah Barden, an English-learners’ teacher.
Dubois said the MSMS Equity Alliance had been working on the BLM flag-raising project for a year.
“I would say that, for us, when the high school students were working toward raising the flag, they made it clear that the experiences they were talking about didn’t just happen at the high school,” Dubois said. “They had happened throughout their school career. That for me was what led us to start working with students here.”
Barden said the MSMS Equity Alliance first formed to begin its work in January 2018 and surveyed the school community about racial injustice.