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REAL Talk at JFK Middle School

Racial Equity and Learning Northampton is displaying an exhibit years in the making exploring race, racism, and empowerment until June 6th.

A collage of student artwork reads "our stories, our vision, our freedom" at the entrance of JFK Middle School. Photo by Mo Schweiger.

By Mo Schweiger

The first thing a student sees upon walking into John F. Kennedy Middle School is a brightly colored collage of drawings covering a wall, spelling out the words “our stories, our vision, our freedom.” The drawings were created by 116 Northampton Public School students as part of the REAL Talk story exhibit that opened on Monday, May 1st. 

In 2017, members of the organization Racial Equity and Learning (REAL) began collecting stories of incidents of racial injustice from students, caregivers, and educators connected to Northampton Public Schools (NPS) with the intent to someday create this exhibit. Coming together in that same year, REAL is an organization of NPS staff, students, caregivers, and community supporters who are calling for a district-wide cultural shift toward anti-racism. In addition to organizing REAL Talk, REAL has been working to emphasize restorative practices within NPS and to support the district’s Family-Student Engagement and English Language Learner Coordinator Lauren Barry, according to their website.  

The exhibit, up until June 6th, has three components: posters throughout the school building, a wall of student art, and a wall of stories. The posters, which are dispersed throughout the school building so that students can encounter them throughout their days, highlight acts of resistance to white supremacy, both historical and contemporary. A poster telling the history of maroon communities in the 1500s hangs across from one of Audre Lorde, illustrating that resistance to white supremacy is an ongoing project.

The drawings that comprise the words “Our stories, our vision, our freedom” were created in response to the question of what students wish to see in their schools going forward. They range from brightly colored illustrations including rainbows, fists, and peace signs to statements calling for equity for all.

The story wall is adjacent to the art wall and displays printed versions of the stories of racial injustice that REAL has been collecting over the last six years. Some themes that ran through the stories include use of racial slurs by students, a lack of racial diversity among faculty, and students feeling racially targeted at school. While the wall only had space for 72 stories, the rest can be read online on REAL’s private Instagram page. The proximity of the art to the stories highlights the message that REAL members are trying to convey through the exhibit, according to REAL co-coordinator and JFK parent Deborah Keisch, who explained that the two work in tandem because the difficulty of the stories is balanced by the art that “shows the beautiful future that could be.” 

“A lot of these problems are things that I have witnessed or that have happened to me or someone else I know,” JFK 6th grader and REAL member Ollie Valentin told The Shoestring. “It’s really nice to be able to read these stories.” Valentin is one of four JFK students who joined with four faculty members in bringing the vision of the exhibit to life. 

“Being in a predominantly white district, people don’t know the degree of racism that occurs,” Keisch told The Shoestring. “Northampton thinks of itself as progressive, and so grappling with the fact that there’s racism here can be hard for people. We wanted to use the experiences of our community to start the dialogue.”

Emma Martin, who herself attended Northampton Public Schools growing up and is one of the four educators who helped steward this project, also points to the importance of foregrounding an understanding of race in a predominantly white district. “It’s important for our children that we put in front of them opportunities where they can engage with different lifestyles and understand the role of whiteness in racism,” she said, adding that “it’s also important to validate the experiences of our students of color and say ‘yes, it is very hard to be a student of color in this district.’”

While awareness of the racism present in the community is important to the organizers of the exhibit, the goal from the beginning has been to improve the experiences of students of color. “It’s important that people tell and speak their truth because in silence, things don’t change,” said paraeducator Mareatha Wallace in the video for REAL’s fundraiser for the project. Wallace is another of the educators involved in bringing the exhibit to life, and a recipient of the Louise Gaskins Lifetime Civil Rights Award from the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

In an attempt to keep the conversation going beyond the exhibit’s closing, there is a box placed by the story wall asking for responses to the exhibit and suggestions on how to create a more equitable school district. “Our next step is looking through all of the suggestions that people have and rallying with our advisory team around some issues that they would like to see happen,” Keisch said. 

One change that Wallace hopes for is the implementation of policies that make it so that Black and Brown people within NPS do not have to be the driving force behind calling out issues of injustice. “The driving force needs to be people collectively saying ‘this is not okay, and because it’s not okay, we’re going to collectively work together,'” Wallace said. “Whether it’s transphobic, racial, homophobic, antisemitic, it doesn’t belong within the four walls of a school building under any circumstance.”

Mo Schweiger is a writer, comedian, and teacher living in Greenfield with their lizard, Louise.

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