After a day of marching and supporting Black artists and business owners, a group of about 100 students, teachers and community members gathered in front of Meadowdale High School Friday evening for a candlelight vigil in honor of Juneteenth.
Hosted by the high school’s Black Student Union, the vigil invited Edmonds School District families to listen to and amplify the voices of Black students, teachers and others on Juneteenth, which recognizes the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.
Standing in front of the gathered crowds, Black students were invited to reflect on what they thought it would look like to be free in their schools — meaning if they were able to feel as comfortable in schools as their white peers, who are more likely to see themselves reflected in the primarily white faculty and staff they see on a daily basis, said event organizer Reita Johnston.
“We’ve done a lot work around equity and diversity and we’ve still got a lot to go,” she said. “It’s Juneteenth and we’re talking about what would it look like to be free in education.”
Some students and district staff read poetry describing their thoughts, feelings and experiences as a Black person in America. Reading a poem he wrote titled “The Black Talk,” Meadowdale graduate Patrick May addressed conversations Black parents have with their children about how to act when interacting with police so as to not be considered a threat. The poem also addressed other racial issues children of color face in school and with their peers.
“You are able to read and write in your English class, you are literate, but when you use intelligent words you are ‘articulate,'” May read.
Others recounted times they were racially profiled by police and how the encounter shaped their fear of law enforcement, including school resource officers (SROs). Meadowdale student Marth Gyau said she sometimes fears going to school and seeing the SRO patrolling the halls.
“Why should I be scared of the police when I come to school and why should I walk in the other direction when I see the police,” she said. “I shouldn’t do that. As a matter of fact, I should be safe at school, but I’m not because I see police officers.”
Recently, members of the Edmonds School Board discussed whether police officers belonged in schools and held a community forum to gather feedback on whether to continue the practice of placing police in schools.
The platform was not limited to students. Chase Lake Elementary School second-grade teacher Justine Locke spoke to remind Black students that their voices matter and can affect change. Locke was the first recipient of the Teachers of Color Foundation scholarship, which gave her the opportunity to begin teaching at Chase Lake.
According to Locke, the scholarship would not have been made possible without students of color demanding more representation in schools. Even after receiving the scholarship, Locke said she faced adversity and discrimination in the district that almost led her to quit, but stayed for the students who fought hard to get her there.
“I couldn’t do that to you, because you asked me to be here, you fought for me to be here,” she said. “And now because of you, there are 13 teachers of color going through the (scholarship program).”
Halfway through the vigil, there was a moment of silence lasting for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time it took George Floyd to die while a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
The students read a list of demands, which called for hiring more teachers of color in the district, counselors that serve as mentors and provide mental health support, updated history courses and hiring support staff for counselors in place of school resource officers.
Johnston said the students understand that the changes cannot happen overnight and their goal is to get the district to commit to making changes that will allow for a more equitable learning experience for students of color.
“They understand that there’s a lot of processes involved,” she said. “What the students are asking for is to take the steps necessary to make these changes.”
Johnston closed the event by reading a passage from Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, which explores the struggles of young Black girls that must defy all odds to be able to receive a proper education.
More photos can be viewed in the gallery below.
–Story and photos by Cody Sexton