Editor’s Note: The students who wrote this article also played a part in some of the events it documents, as members of the Student Diversity Union at Rice Memorial High School. This type of conflict of interest is sometimes hard to avoid in student journalism: when students report on issues at their own school they often have a stake in the story. The team of student reporters at Rice were not neutral observers, but they worked hard to be objective, to verify details, and to seek comment from people in authority.
This is the final installment in the Underground Workshop’s invitational series exploring the history of the Black Lives Matter flag in Vermont’s schools. The complete series will be published in October as a package, with prompts for teachers and students to use in discussion. Students interested in reporting for the Underground Workshop should email the Workshop’s editor, Ben Heintz, at [email protected]
by Caitlin Balón and Vanessa George
with reporting from Zander Preis, Connor Willett, Jillian Getler and Otto Pierce
The first person to propose raising the Black Lives Matter flag on Rice Memorial High School’s campus, in 2018, was a white student: Liam Manion.
Before approaching the administration, Manion consulted with Black students Sonia and Dina John, seniors who led the Student Diversity Union (SDU) at Rice.
The Johns were hesitant.
They remember telling Manion, “You’re not going to be the one most impacted by this.” Raising the BLM flag was “super vulnerable and super emotional to [them]” as students of color. The John sisters feared that a rejection of the flag would ultimately undermine other anti-racist efforts at Rice.
Nonetheless, the Johns and Manion—with another senior, Junior Serwili—agreed to collaborate under the advisory of two teachers, crafting a proposal to raise the flag. The hope was to plan a school assembly to raise the flag and then fly it year-round. The students also asked for institutional change, including the implementation of a social justice course required for all freshmen.
To strengthen their proposal, the students reached out to Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington for feedback and strategies. In their proposal they also included Catholic tenets and quotes that they thought aligned with the sentiment of Black Lives Matter. These would serve to support BLM as a reflection of Catholic principles rather than a political movement.
Typically, a student proposal like this would be brought to the principal or vice principal. For example, students technically require administrative approval to hang posters in the hallways or participate in a school walk-out. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which holds religious jurisdiction over Rice, would be next to get involved in student proposals and inquiries, but only if absolutely necessary.
Lisa Lorenz, Rice’s principal of five years, explained the diocesan structure of authority in an April 2021 interview. “The diocese doesn’t micromanage,” she said, but “if anything comes into question with regard to something that we can do, that goes right back up to the Bishop.”
But the Johns, Manion, and Serwili did not even make it to Principal Lorenz with their proposal, let alone the Bishop.
Abruptly, and without the students themselves ever meeting with school officials, the movement for the BLM flag at Rice came to a halt. According to Manion, one of the advising teachers consulted with another faculty member about the students’ efforts. When this teacher reported back to the students, Manion said they expressed doubt about the proposal’s approval. Upon hearing this, the students decided to not pursue it any further, anticipating backlash if they did.
But the students did not understand the root of this hesitancy. In fact, to this day, the John sisters, Serwili, and Manion have yet to receive clear communication as to who specifically opposed the proposal and what the underlying reason was.
Students and community members guessed that the flag could have been rejected for reasons related to Rice’s tax-exempt status as a private institution. Manion also recalled someone suggesting that “people [would be] worried about donor support if we did it.” Others wondered if the administration felt concerned about BLM’s affiliation with liberal movements and politics. School officials neither confirmed nor denied whether these rumors were true.
Three years later, Rice still has not raised the BLM flag, and students continue to feel dissatisfied with the resolution, or lack thereof. Because of this, student advocates have taken the initiative in conversing with school authorities about BLM and race at Rice.
The student body at Rice, a Roman Catholic college-preparatory school in South Burlington, reflects the lack of racial diversity in Vermont: according to Rice’s 2021-2022 enrollment records provided by the school’s Registrar, 395 of the school’s 401 students disclosed their ethnicity. Of that number, 81% identify as Caucasian, or white.
Because of this, BIPOC students at Rice tend to gravitate towards each other. Daniel Bogre shared his experience as a Black freshman. “The first thing I did was I found all the kids of color,” he said. “If a kid would come up to me and say something racist, I knew the other students of color would have my back.”
Another Black student, Maxime Makuza, described racial incidents on the Rice football team, including comments from opposing players. “Freshman year I heard the worst of the worst insults,” he said. “I’ve heard the N word. I have heard people say jokes about slavery, how they are masters, how they’re superior.”
Students of color also experience microaggressions on campus.
Izzy Riven is a recent graduate who is Asian American. When she was in a class with another Asian student, she said, “people would usually ask if we were related simply because we ‘looked the same.’ Would they ask any two white students if they were related because they ‘looked the same?’”
For the past four years, BIPOC students at Rice have encouraged cultural competency and anti-racism in the Rice community through the Student Diversity Union, a student-led club that has become a refuge for students of color at school.
Makuza, a leader of SDU, shared what the Black Lives Matter movement means to him. “Black Lives Matter is for Black people and other people of color,” he said. “I believe that it is a way that we stand together and try to end all of the discrimination, the racism, and all of the inequality in the world.”
The summer before the 2020-2021 academic year, students at Rice (including students who wrote this story) again sought to raise a BLM flag at Rice. Like the Johns, Serwili, and Manion, they too expected pushback from the administration and the Diocese of Burlington. They organized an online petition, urging Rice to “take a step further, and do better.”
Within a few days, the petition received over 100 signatures from the student body, about a quarter of the school’s population. The plan was to meet with the administration as soon as school began.
But students were unaware that the diocese had already developed a new alternative to the flag.
On September 14, the Superintendent of Schools, Jeanne Gearon, sent a memo to the Catholic school principals introducing “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” a document created by the Bishops to share the Church’s teachings on racism. The email recommended that schools “intentionally weave the prayer to end racism into your school’s prayer life” and “share the stories of saints from various cultures (perhaps one a week/month).”
The memo did not mention Black Lives Matter. It did ask schools to adopt an alternative phrase: “Racism Has No Home Here.”
Then, around noon on Friday, September 18, Lorenz sent an email titled “Racism Has No Home At Rice” to current students and their families.
This email addressed Rice’s stance on Black Lives Matter, stating that “the Diocese of Burlington prohibits the public display of any political signs endorsing or condemning any political candidates, parties, or action groups. This applies, for example, to ‘Black Lives Matter’ as it does to ‘Make America Great Again.’”
As instructed by the diocese, Rice planned to display the “Racism Has No Home Here” sign in the school. However, the response that followed the email caused Principal Lorenz to reconsider her plans.
The students’ reactions were mixed. One white student at Rice argued that the choice as an alternative to BLM was actually more inclusive, claiming that “people may agree that the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ is only referring to Black lives and not white lives, or Hispanic lives, or Asian lives.”
To many BIPOC students, however, “Racism Has No Home Here” triggered frustration, primarily because it directly countered the BLM movement.
“[The] first time I saw that [sign], I laughed.” Daniel Bogre said. “I do everything for this school, but the school doesn’t have my back. And with ‘racism has no home here,’ that was a punch in the gut.”
Many BIPOC students felt that the slogan ignored their daily struggle against racism. “It is hard to say racism doesn’t have a home at Rice,” Maxime Makuza said. “It is built into the system, not just at Rice, but in the world we live in.”
The school administration also posted Lorenz’s statement and an image of the “Racism Has No Home Here” sign on Rice’s facebook account. Alumni and community members rushed to the comments to share their thoughts.
More than 40 commenters disagreed with Rice’s stance on the issue: “‘Racism Has No Home Here’ creates a narrative in which Rice claims to be an exception to racism, which is entirely false,” one former student explained. “Racism is everywhere.”
However, around 15 people commented on the post in support of the administration, saying Rice was smart to stay out of politics. “It is reassuring to know that our teachers and staff will not be forcing their political beliefs into our children’s minds,” one parent wrote.
“It is nice to see a school stand up for what is right while other HS are trying to brainwash their liberal views on students,” another parent wrote. “Last I checked that is a form of communism.”
While the news spread quickly over Facebook, Rice’s administration was silent on other social media platforms, leaving current students, most of whom do not hold Facebook accounts, out of the online conversation.
News of the alternative slogan also impacted faculty and staff who were already displaying BLM signs in classrooms and offices. In August 2021, Rice’s head of Guidance, Rachel Rabbin, recalled the administrative and diocesan instruction, saying “faculty or staff who displayed official BLM signage were asked to take it down in accordance with school and Diocesan policy.”
But these faculty and staff still intended “to show solidarity and support of racial justice,” Rabbin said. So instead, “[they] advocated for the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ to be put up in their rooms or offices in any other form.” This meant the phrase could be displayed but not as the typical white font and black background image. According to Rabbin, the administration and diocese approved this.
In the weeks following the email announcing the “Racism Has No Home Here” slogan, the administration made no formal communication to the Rice community regarding Black Lives Matter.
In an interview seven months later, in April 2021, Principal Lorenz said she was initially unaware of the social media tension and student frustration around the new slogan. “Students didn’t let me know right away how they felt,” she said. “It was kind of third party until I was able to sit down with a group of students and they helped me understand how they felt and received it.”
After meeting with SDU members and hearing the students’ dissatisfaction with the rejection of BLM and the introduction of the alternative slogan, Lorenz offered an opportunity for students and faculty to meet with Bishop Coyne, hoping to encourage more dialogue between the school and the diocese.
The details were announced by email a week before the meeting, in a weekly update. The meeting would take place directly after school on Monday October 19th, 2020.
That afternoon, a crowd of around 50 students, teachers, and staff gathered into one of the school’s temporary classrooms, located in the cafeteria. Students sat in desks directly in front of the Bishop while the teachers and other administrators lined the back of the room. Even before the meeting officially began, everyone could feel the tension.
The Bishop started the meeting with a prayer, said a few words, and then opened the floor up to questions from the students.
The first question was simple. Why can’t we raise the Black Lives Matter flag at Rice?
Samantha Walter was a sophomore who attended the meeting. “The question had been answered vaguely by [Principal] Lorenz, but students wanted a clear answer from the Bishop himself,” she said. “He told the students that the flag had been politicized, and that the church cannot get involved in politics.”
The Bishop declined a request for an interview, but on May 26, 2021 he gave a written statement via email:
The Catholic Church in Vermont follows the teachings of the Christ in the tradition and faith of the Church. As such we hold racism in any form to be against the call to love one another as brothers and sisters and objectively sinful. We are committed to eradicating the sin of racism within ourselves individually, within our Church collectively, and within society as a whole.
However, as a religious organization, we refrain from affiliation with or endorsing of any political, cultural, parties, or movements. While our brothers and sisters in the Church are free to follow their own conscience to do so, as a religious organization we maintain our independence. Thus within our buildings and grounds, we do not display any paraphernalia connected with outside groups that are not of our own.
In the October meeting, the Bishop told students about the process of developing an alternative slogan. At one point, Bishop Coyne shared some of the slogans that had been discussed but ruled out, and one in particular stood out to Daniel Bogre:
“[They] were gonna fly an All Lives Matter flag, and a roomful of white people said that that was okay,” said Bogre, referring to the principals and administrators involved in brainstorming slogans.
Students also called attention to the BLM organization’s support of the LGBTQ+ community and Rice’s trips to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., an annual protest against abortion.
“Rice annually sends students to D.C. to protest abortion and to spread their ‘Pro- Life’ ideas” Samantha Walter said. “Rice incentivizes students with 20 hours of community service to join the march.”
Another student at the meeting asked, “is the Pro-Life march deemed apolitical to the Church? Or does the Church simply pick and choose what political movement they support?” According to Walter, the Bishop responded saying “that the Church must get involved in politics when needed.”
Bogre recalled how student pushback on this stance seemed to come as a surprise to Bishop Coyne. “He’s the bishop, you literally run the Catholic Church in the whole state,” Bogre said. “And you think that a bunch of 15, 16, 17 year olds are going to back down to you because you’re this high and mighty person?”
While the administration may have felt like it provided clarity, students left the meeting with more questions about race and BLM at Rice.
In mid-October of 2020, the conversation around race resurfaced with Rice’s selection of a patron saint. Each year, the school’s chaplain selects a handful of saints whose narratives share a specific theme and then the students select one to be their patron saint.
For the 2020-2021 school year, four out of the five saints were people of color, a change from the previous year’s selection of mostly white saints. While many inferred that this change was a reflection of the current social climate surrounding race in the United States, the students were still unsure what the administration’s reasoning was behind the selection.
The student body voted for their preferred patron saint. Saint Moses “The Black” won by a 10% margin.
In an email announcing this, the chosen image of St. Moses depicted a man with light skin and Eurocentric facial features. But when students searched images of St. Moses on the internet, Rice’s chosen image was not the first to show up; instead, a picture of a dark-skinned Ethiopian man was first.
Moreover, students felt that the characterization of him as a bandit and a thief who was saved by his conversion to Christianity exemplified many negative stereotypes regularly applied to people of color.
Perhaps most uncomfortable for many BIPOC students was the saint’s moniker “the Black,” which, in learning about his path from crime to sainthood, seemed to equate the blackness of his skin with sin.
The moniker also stood out to white students as an emphasis on St. Moses’ race. As Daniel Bogre put it “the Black” made it seem like his race, rather than his good works, defined St. Moses. At one point, Bogre said, a white student tried joking with him about the saint, saying, “‘you gotta vote for this Black guy. Or if you don’t do it, you’re a coon’.”
The Student Diversity Union outlined their concerns about the saint in a public statement, which was released to the Rice community. With this particular selection of saints, the SDU argued, the administration “intended to reflect the current social climate and civil unrest in our country. However, in failing to properly share this reasoning, many students of color understood the selection as a performative action.” The administration agreed to stop using the moniker “the Black” when praying to Saint Moses.
On May 27th, 2021 the superintendent of Catholic Schools, Jeanne Gearon, responded by email to an interview request, asking her to clarify the diocesan policy regarding Black Lives Matter. She used the same language from Principal Lorenz’s first email regarding the flag:
The consistent policy of the Catholic schools of the Diocese of Burlington prohibits the public display of any political signs endorsing or condemning any political candidates, parties, or action groups. This applies, for example, to “Black lives matter” as it applies to “Make America great again.” Instead, Catholic schools will be displaying a “Racism Has No Home Here” sign, chosen by the principals and administrator. Additionally, all our schools will be discussing how our faith calls us to root out racism and promote justice within our institutions that are meant to protect and serve all citizens.
In the months following the rejection of the Black Lives Matter flag at Rice, students began to shift their focus to larger concerns of racism at Rice.
In February, the Student Diversity Union spearheaded several projects to honor Black History Month. Rice celebrated Black poetry by reading poems over the intercom, and teachers incorporated SDU’s suggested topics ranging from redlining to the history of blackface. In the spring, the SDU began a monthly newsletter addressing social justice issues and promoting multiculturalism.
Student organizations led many of the social justice projects at Rice last year, but Rachel Rabbin noted that the faculty also has made efforts towards cultural competency in the classroom. “Our teachers really stepped up this year and delved into learning more about their own social identities and how to best support BIPOC students in their classrooms,” she said.
Focusing more on long term, deeper issues, the administration has taken steps in curriculum development through the incorporation of diverse narratives for the school-wide summer reading. In preparation for the 2021-2022 school year, they also scheduled a one-day training led by CQ Strategies for faculty, relating to cultural competency and anti-racism.
“I brought in some professionals, some people who have actually been able to have those conversations with my staff and it was a safe place for them to be able to ask those questions that sometimes they were scared to ask,” Principal Lorenz said. “There’s an intentional movement towards bringing awareness and also change.”
Principal Lorenz noted that it can be frustrating for the students when they don’t see immediate change. “There’s been a lot of movement internally that is behind the scenes,” she assured students in an interview, on April 9th. “And that is my own personal work with my faculty and staff and with outside sources and committee members.”
Though students may have moved on from the flag proposal, seeing no hope for its approval, they will continue to fight for the very systemic changes that the BLM movement strives to make.
To ensure student inclusion in enacting such institutional changes, students expect to continue their advocacy and work closely with teachers as well as administrators and diocesan authorities, as necessary.
Students also hope to draw on the moral parallels between Catholic principles and social justice issues. According to Daniel Bogre, this is the key to affecting change at Rice, particularly in the context of BLM.
“I am Catholic,” he said. “I’m one of those Catholics who believes all lives cannot matter until Black lives matter.”
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger’s reporting on politics. And in case you can’t get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day’s news in the Legislature.
Credit: Source link