More than 100 high school students from across Massachusetts attended the second annual Hiatt Youth Summit on Race, Class and Education, organized by the Jacob Hiatt Center for Urban Education at Clark University, April 9.
Students from high schools in Amherst, Cambridge, Framingham, Springfield, and Worcester gathered in Tilton Hall for a daylong program focusing on how race and class shapes their educational experience and personal identity.
“You’re here today because we value your voices, we value your attempt to do better in your schools,” Clark visiting assistant professor of education Raphael Rogers said as he welcomed the participants.
“We have diversity in our schools. … I think beyond identity, a lot of students struggle with sort of figuring it all out,” Rogers told a reporter from Charter TV3’s “Worcester News Tonight.”
Three Clark University undergraduates spoke to the gathering, sharing their personal experiences with regard to identity and overcoming societal and personal barriers in their journeys toward academic success.
“I always knew I wanted to go to colleges,” said Caleb Encarnacion, a first-year at Clark and recent graduate of the University Park Campus School in Worcester. He recalled how people questioned his choice to apply to Ivy League colleges, based on assumptions about his background and abilities.
Encarnacion graduated with honors from UPCS. He encouraged the students at the Summit to seek out mentors, adding a shout-out of appreciation to his major mentor, Marianna Islam, who was a panelist later in the day. “Know who you are,” Encarnacion said. “Let what other people say about you push you harder.”
Kefiana Kabati ’17 spoke about moving to the United States from Kenya and how, despite her already strong English skills and academic record in Africa, her school tried to push her into ESL courses and sought to block her desire to enroll in honors classes. With her mother’s strong support, she was able to overcome the “hierarchy of classes” and educational “sorting mechanisms” she encountered, as well as doubters who assumed that she “wouldn’t be able to keep up or catch on.”
Kabati admitted that she tried very hard to fit in, to be like everyone around her. “Throughout high school I was trying to erase who I was, and I was not being authentic. In college I realized how wrong that was. You don’t have to silence yourself… Be OK with who you are.”
The third Clark speaker was Johanna Merlos ’16, who discussed her experiences living in Brooklyn and Queens. She said her ESL experiences made her feel excluded and “punished” as a younger child. “Coming to Clark was the first place where I’ve talked about race,” she said, adding that she loves Worcester’s diversity and that, eventually, many peers reached past the cultural and language barriers to become close friends. “Being bilingual is a beautiful thing, and I appreciate that every day. When we talk about identity, it’s complicated.”
“Throughout high school I was trying to erase who I was, and I was not being authentic. In college I realized how wrong that was. You don’t have to silence yourself… Be OK with who you are.”
The summit included interactive group activities, led by assistant professor of education Eric DeMeulenaere and joined by several teachers and staff from the Hiatt Center for Urban Education and accompanying educators from the visiting high schools.
An afternoon panel of professionals shared how their identities shaped their school experiences and professional and personal lives. The panelists were Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at University of Massachusetts/Amherst and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Center at UMass; Marianna Islam, founding member of Youth Empowerment & Activism and an activist involved in several coalitions working to increase Worcester’s leadership capacity to address issues related to racial justice; and Macken Toussaint, an attorney at the law firm of Reimer and Braunstein in Boston.
Participating high schools included UPCS (Worcester), Claremont Academy (Worcester), Community Charter School of Cambridge, Framingham High School, Renaissance Expeditionary High School (Springfield), and Amherst Regional High School.