ERASE Racism, a Syosset-based organization that works to expose racial discrimination and advocate for laws and polices to help eliminate racial disparities and segregation on Long Island, found that since 2004 the number of intensely segregated school districts on the Island more than doubled, from five to 11.
To reach out to young people who might one day become lawyers, teachers and elected leader who could tackle this issue, ERASE Racism recently hosted the Long Island Leaders of Tomorrow Conference as a part of its Student Voices campaign. Nyah Berg, the group’s education equity organizer, said the campaign’s goal “is to create a task force to help students create a better environment of racial and socioeconomic equity in their schools.”
Nearly 70 students from 16 schools, along with parents, teachers and school administrators, took part in discussions and activities about race, activism, and the structural and intuitional underpinnings racism. They also watched “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” a PBS documentary investigating race as a social construct, and “Laundry City,” a play written and performed by students about activism and integration.
Berg said she hoped the conference would show students how to get involved and make a difference, and used examples from the civil rights movement to drive the point home. She also wanted to highlight how the history of housing discrimination, known as redlining, has played a major part in the fragmentation along racial lines seen on Long Island. “History can be hidden,” Berg said. “Only so many hands went up when they asked who learned about this in school.”
Gabrielle Barnes, a Hewlett High School senior, attended the conference along with other members of the school’s Youth Leadership Club. For her, having a place where she could have these conversations was refreshing. “We talked about things you don’t talk about at school, or even with your friends,” she said. “Like, we don’t hear about how race is a social construct in typical conversations.”
Their club’s adviser, Dr. David Rifkind, a social studies teacher, appeared excited to have an opportunity to organize a group of students who are interested in advocacy. “We have a diverse community [in the Hewlett-Woodmere School District], but we don’t have the level of cultural awareness that fully appreciates and integrates all segments of our community,” he said. “Working with groups such as ERASE Racism will help us develop a network of students and groups with like interests.”
Other students took it upon themselves to attend. Rina Sarfraz, a senior at Mepham High school in Bellmore, attended on her own after an ERASE Racism representative spoke to her leadership class. Sarfraz said that she already had a deep interest in social justice, but still learned a great deal from the conference.
Sarfraz spoke of an experiment that was discussed at the conference, for which students of different races had their DNA tested to show that the most similar results weren’t always among those of the same complexion. “It showed that there are more similarities between us than may appear,” she said,” and that there really aren’t many differences setting us apart.”
That sentiment was a lesson that Berg said she hoped students would learn. “Just moving bodies won’t solve the problems,” she said. “There need to be supportive relationships. That’s true integration.”
While the conference was dedicated to very serious and somber topics, Sarfraz said she is eager to get back out and make use of what she learned. “I’m glad I got to educate myself,” she said. “And now I can help educate my classmates.”
Barnes expressed a similar sentiment, highlighting how the stories of students effecting change during the 1960s served as an inspiration. “Even though we’re young, we can still be activists,” she said.