A group Vermont of high school students wants to talk about racism — and they hope you’ll listen.
The Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network formed last summer with a vision of promoting antiracism, addressing racial injustice, and centering marginalized voices and experiences in schools across the state.
The student-led group, which counts its membership at 25, includes students from 14 schools in eight Vermont counties.
Being antiracist is described by the National Museum of African-American History & Culture as “believing that racism is everyone’s problem, and we all have a role to play in stopping it.”
It further explains that being antiracist is not only being conscious about race and racism but actively working to end racial inequities. Antiracism requires acknowledging and understanding privilege, working to overcome internalized biases, and confronting and interrupting acts and systems that perpetuate racial discrimination.
While some individuals may want to dismiss young people who take up social justice issues as the products of indoctrination by activist teachers or pawns in a liberal propaganda campaign, these students speak for themselves, they say.
Addie Lentzner, an Arlington Memorial High School junior, is one of VSARN’s founders. Last June, she emailed the State Board of Education to voice her concerns about systemic racism in education and the need to include student voices in transforming curriculum. The board connected her with one of its student representatives, and the group spun out of those conversations.
Olivia Miller, a sophomore at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, said she and her peers were motivated to take action after witnessing the protests against police brutality that erupted last year.
“I think seeing all the news coverage and the protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor really hit us at our cores and made us realize how unjust our systems are in this country,” she said.
Lentzner noted the everyday racism she sees manifest in the community and in schools that often goes unaddressed. She said when she imagined what it must be like for students of color to endure that kind of discrimination, she felt a sense of “urgency to act” and “form a group of student activists who really want to raise our voices for change and make something happen.”
The group quickly recognized that the classroom was a key battleground in the fight against racism.
“We really wanted to focus on education, because when we’re educated, it helps us form our own opinions and values that we carry with us for the rest of our lives,” Miller said. “If we can educate students with curriculum that shows a diverse array of perspectives, and is actively antiracist, those students will grow up to create a compassionate, empathetic and actively antiracist society.”
To that end, the group has been advocating for schools to consider implementing more inclusive, less Eurocentric curricula. They plan to have conversations at the state level and talk with local curriculum directors to make their case.
“We really feel like educating students on every perspective in history, and every group of people and their struggles and their accomplishments is really important in building an antiracist society,” Lentzner said.
She pointed to the importance of learning about the history of slavery and lynchings in America and being able to tie them to the racism that exists within today’s criminal justice system.
Lentzner said she believes making such connections will motivate students to make changes in society.
She said the group believes it’s important to begin antiracist work early, and wants to see it being taught at primary and elementary-grade levels.
The group recently received a $1,000 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation, which it plans to use to buy racially inclusive and antiracist books for elementary school students statewide.
Miller said the books will “represent diverse characters and storylines with different perspectives so students can be exposed to perspectives that they may not necessarily get from their classmates or peers.”
She added that such exposure to diversity is especially important in a predominantly white state like Vermont.
Beyond curriculum, Lentzner listed other issues the group might take on, including removing student resource officers from schools and supporting the display of more Black Lives Matter flags around the state and creating memorials for victims of racial violence. Through it all, she wants to make sure the work is centering students of color and their experiences.
But despite their youth, the group is hardly naive. While its members know they won’t end racism, they’re not going to stop working toward a less racist society.
Kyle Mitchell, a senior at Middlebury Union High School, called the group’s antiracist work “a process and not a destination.”
He said he sees the group building an educational campaign that affects every Vermonter and fosters a civilized conversation about racism.
“We envision a Vermont that acknowledges the ways that racism is historically and institutionally embedded, and take seriously our ethical obligation to address and combat these oppressions,” he said.
Mitchell noted that while racism feels as if it’s “at its peak right now,” he is comforted by something his grandmother once told him: “Things might be worse right now, but it’s always followed by the good.”
“I’m just hoping to see a united country in the future,” he said.
Kimberly Gleason is a member of the State Board of Education, who has helped VSARN in what she called a “minimal” advisory role.
“Student voice and empowerment, and issues of equity in education are passions of mine, so Addie’s email was a welcome challenge to the norms in our education system, especially at such a critical time,” she said.
Gleason said student involvement forces adult policymakers to challenge assumptions, seek broader input and evaluate the impact of current structures.
“We cannot assume that efforts borne of good intention are necessarily having the intended effect. We must be prepared to have difficult conversations, to create space for authentic engagement around racism and equity, and pursue change with urgency, intention, and the support necessary to be sustainable,” she said. “Our students will demand this of us, and we must take on this challenge, and carry it forward long after this group of students have graduated.”
As VSARN works to find its feet and voice, it’s also looking to build its ranks.
“We really want to get as many students as we can and, especially, make sure that we have students of color and that we’re centering their voices,” Lentzner said.
The group currently includes only two students of color, but Lentzner said “that’s something that we really want to be changing.”
She invited any students interested in joining the group to send an email to email@example.com
“It feels overwhelming … there’s so much in the world that needs changing. I think the dream that our student group has, is to make connections throughout Vermont and to really advocate for what we think is right and the changes we want to see,” Lentzner said. “A group of students can be a really powerful thing.”