When Khuram Hussain was 7 years old he came to school to find a cupcake and an American flag on his desk. It wasn’t his birthday, and he hadn’t won some academic award. But it was a celebration: His parents had just become American citizens.
“As an immigrant, and the son of immigrants, this was when the school was trying to celebrate this special moment. And it was nice,” said the dean of Hobart and William Smith Colleges to a rapt audience of more than 500 students from area schools who braved harsh weather to attend the 7th Roc2Change Fall Summit. “What was interesting to me was that at this moment when the school and community were trying to say ‘congratulations, you’re one of us,’ I was also reminded that even by the age of 7 I had gotten signals that I was not ‘one of us.’”
Hussain already had experienced the singling out that often happens to those who don’t fall neatly into the “one of us” category. He had been called “burned toast” and “camel jockey” and other names he refused to share at the event.
Still, there was a sense of pride in becoming U.S. citizens, especially for Hussain’s mother. Until recently, when a perceived change of atmosphere related to immigrants, Muslims and people of color began to permeate society.
“Some people feel this atmosphere has gotten more intense over the last couple of years,” Hussain said. “Even my mother, who is one of the most optimistic and strong people I’ve known in my life, the last couple of years she stopped saying things like ‘this is our country,’ and she started asking ‘what is going to become of us here?’
“Living in the shadow of fear is something a lot of us know,” Hussain said. While shopping for a house in Rochester a couple of years ago, a potential neighbor asked him if he was a terrorist. If he smiles at the officer while crossing the Canadian border, he’s treated as though he’s a criminal. “That kind of everyday horror is so real. I have to live under that shadow of fear.”
The Roc2Change Student Summit on Race seeks to address issues like those Hussain described. Friday’s summit focused on intersectionality, the theory that social identities, related systems of oppression, domination or discrimination and multiple group identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities.
Students from 38 schools in 25 districts across the Rochester metro area attended Friday’s event. Topics of discussion among break-out groups of students ranged from feeling uncomfortable with your identity to how you react when you see police officers to ways in which race affects everyday life. The focus was on how individuals can create stronger schools and communities by supporting all who feel marginalized.
Hussain suggested that one way to do that is to make trouble, to collectively stand up and be heard.
“I’m here to tell you your stories matter, and you’re not wrong to make trouble,” he said. “You’re never wrong to make trouble when it really matters for your survival and the survival of others. It is indeed the only thing that has ever improved this society. It is the only thing that has humanized this society. It is the only thing that is going to humanize your schools, your communities. Without trouble there is no change.”
The biannual Roc2Change summit began in 2016 following a national conference on race attended by Jeffrey Crane, retiring superintendent of West Irondequoit Central School District. A group of students, calling themselves Gateway 2 Change, were from Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri.
“At the same time, we in Rochester were aware of the issues our society is facing and how dynamic, articulate, honest and ethical the kids are that we get to teach every day that are current high school kids,” Crane said. “And we know as educators if we give them a chance to have conversations that they can become more comfortable with, they’re going to do it much more quickly than people of my generation were able to do it.”
The Gateway 2 Change students came to West Irondequoit and held the first summit, which was attended by 180 Rochester area students. The summit model has evolved and grown, and Steven Lysenko, assistant principle for Spencerport High School and president of the local chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education of New York State, noted that later this month the summit’s leadership will present the model to other regions of the country for possible inclusion in their school districts.
The Fall Summit’s sponsor, Brighton High School, began planning for the event a year ago, said Brighton High School English teacher Chris Kantz, and each student had previously attended at least one summit.
“The summits have inspired them to really become active within the school,” Kantz said. “It takes a lot of time and effort, but the students find this work so valuable, as do we adults, that it’s worth the time and effort. I find that when we get kids together and they’re in a safe group and they’re able to tell their stories honestly, it’s not really about causing trouble. It’s about just demanding equity and demanding fairness. And when they have the confidence to do that and the support of the adults around them, it makes some really positive change.”
Ranita Williams, a veteran of the Roc2Change summit and a student at St. John Fisher College, said the event began as “just kids who wanted a change.”
“The biggest takeaway is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a city kid. It doesn’t matter if you’re a suburban kid or a kid who goes to a private school,” Williams said. “We can all come together and have a conversation that most adults can’t have, and sit here and share our personal experiences, share our stories and learn from one another. Because if we don’t learn from one another and take time to listen to one another, how are we supposed to make this world better?”
And those discussions and stories have a ripple effect throughout the community.
“It’s important that we recognize that some people think, when we talk about diversity, we’re just benefiting the disenfranchised students. No, no, no, no,” Lysenko said. “You’re benefiting every single student here. Because when our students leave the silo that is their high school they’re going to go out into the world, working with people that maybe don’t look like them, maybe don’t talk like them, maybe speak a different language. They need to have this experience and be armed with those experiences so they can be successful in their years after high school.
“That’s why we’re here,” Lysenko added. “We’re here to prepare students not just academically, but socially and emotionally. This is a vital piece that isn’t written into any curriculum, but we need it to be.”
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