A few years ago, a group of Seattle educators, activists, and prominent community members noticed that more young people were investing their time in something that is not measured, or often even recognized, in schools.
That something was leadership – especially students who demonstrated “exceptional leadership in the struggle for social justice and against racism.”
There were students like Ifrah Abshir who campaigned in the city to give low-income students free ORCA tickets. And Garfield High football player Jelani Howard, who led his team to the decision to kneel down during the national anthem to raise awareness of racism and police brutality.
In 2016, the first Black Education Matters Student Activist Awards were given to student leaders like Abshir and Howard for their roles in the fight for social justice. Last week, three students who make a difference received the awards: Mia Dabney, a Cleveland STEM High School graduate; KyRi Miller, Garfield High 2021 graduate; and Aneesa Roidad, a 2020 Ballard High graduate.
The award and student recognition program was launched with settlement funds received by Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian after suing the Seattle Police Department and the City of Seattle for being sprayed with pepper spray by a Seattle Police officer. The award program, in which each student receives $ 1,000, has since been supported by former Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett and Grammy-winning hip-hop performer Macklemore.
In 2017, the program added the Pennie Bennett Black Education Matters Award, presented by the NFL star in honor of his mother, a lifelong educator, who Dabney received that year.
Students have shown over the years that activism exists in many forms.
“The problem with institutional racism does not lie in a distant state, but here at home and therefore I am particularly happy to honor these young people who fight against this type of system,” said Hagopian during the virtual award ceremony.
One of Dabney’s greatest accomplishments was the development of Seattle Public Schools Board Directive 1250, which was passed unanimously this spring. It will install at least three youth representatives on the Seattle School Board starting this fall.
Dabney credits her parents for teaching her the core values of education and love.
Whether at school, at a dance class or in cross-country running training, she said: “I am a young black woman every day of my life.” This experience brings both challenges and joys, she said.
“I know how to enter a room and I know my strength. Yes, I’m scared and sometimes I wonder what if they don’t listen and what if they don’t understand. Then I’ll go back to my core values, ”said Dabney.
Over the next year, Dabney hopes to find adult leaders who are not only willing to meet and hear with students at their level, but also let students guide change at higher levels. She will serve as the Associate Student Council of Cleveland for the upcoming school year.
“I want to be part of the change and make sure students feel uplifted and validated,” she said.
KyRi Miller’s proudest accomplishment in making change will light up the halls of Garfield High for years to come.
With the help of Garfield’s folklore teachers Alekzandr Wray and Hagopian, Miller organized and directed a Black Lives Matter at School installation and wall project. The mural, painted by Garfield students and four local wall painters, stretches along the walls to the balcony on the second floor of the school, an area that many color students enjoy hanging out. The murals focus on the trials of black history and the jubilation over the achievements of blacks.
“Since he set foot on campus, he has [Miller] has consistently been in a leadership position, ”said Wray.
Miller recalls another teacher at the school voicing his concern over a call-out activity proposed by Miller, telling white members of the school community to stand up if they understood what was happening to blacks – and then stop, if they wanted something happened to black people to happen to them.
Miller had hoped to call out during a school meeting, but could only do so in a classroom. What could have been a powerful moment was mitigated by a teacher feeling uncomfortable, he said.
“For me, activism starts with one thing: I’m black before I am,” Miller said. “That’s why it’s really important to me to present my blackness and my excellence. I want to show that I am more than just barriers and obstacles. ”
Miller, who has appeared in numerous school plays and the Teen Summer Musical program in Seattle, will bring his passion and talent to the historically grown Black Dillard University this fall, where he will study film and management. He hopes to combat the stereotypes of blacks in the roles blacks play in the film.
Aneesa Roidad has served as a leader in the education of the Washington NAACP Youth Council and has organized and continues to lead discussions in the Seattle community on educational equity and curriculum changes.
She began her high school years in Pennsylvania during the 2016 election. That year she did a history project about the Little Rock Nine, the first African American students to disband Arkansas Central High School in Little Rock.
As a Pakistani-American student, she recognized the need to show solidarity and support at all interfaces where people’s needs are not equally taken into account.
It wasn’t until she moved to Seattle early in her sophomore year that she got involved in the movement to change the curriculum and school culture.
“When the youth council started, we were a small group of students who settled in and tried to figure out what to do with our energy and passion,” said Roidad.
To see students from across the region get together for the first time and make a list of calls for change that were made at a program for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018, “it was just so powerful.”
This fall, Roidad will go to Harvard University, where she works for educational equity and wants to become more involved in the fight against climate change.
She said she was taking to heart what Donte Felder, the teacher at Seattle Public Schools, said during the awards ceremony so as not to get complacent.
“People need to find ways to get involved in communities and support and get involved in the work of youth activists,” she said.