A group of students from the first Embracing Race and Ethnicity elective course at Saline High School publicly shared some of their accomplishments with the Saline Board of Education, which also heard a powerful story from one of the district's few African American students.
Embracing Race and Ethnicity was approved as a course offering last year and is off to a strong start with two sections of nearly 30 students each, according to SHS Principal David Raft, who said that the course has "taken off pretty well."
Brian Lampman is the course instructor. He is a 23-year veteran of Saline schools having started at Saline Middle School before teaching for awhile at Ann Arbor Public Schools Pioneer High School. He soon returned to Saline.
"My time in Saline has always been marked by the importance of building relationships and the opportunity to work with such gifted, articulate, eloquent, amazing, thoughtful students committed to making the world a better place," Lampman said.
The course is described as an "introductory look at the study of race and ethnicity" and promises to "equip students with a better understanding of the role that race and ethnicity play in shaping society."
The most powerful offering from the group of students that stood with Lampman this week before the Board of Education was the story of Sidney Washington, a Saline High School junior who has grown up as an African American among an overwhelming white majority.
Sidney recalled her best friend Alanna being biracial and being one of three black students in a class of 13. At the time, she didn't really think of Alanna's parents having different skin colors or of her own relative to those around her. By four years old, she began to see the difference between herself and her white classmates. She noted the difference between their long straight hair and her thick curly hair, and she began do what people do in that situation: she wanted to change her own hair to conform to the majority.
"I started to realize how nobody else looked like me; their skin was light, mine was dark," Washington said. "I stood out. I wasn't like everyone else. I remember in the car telling my mom, 'I don't want to be chocolate.'"
Her mother assured her that all of the "flavors" had equal merit, but the group social dynamic had already began to influence her young mind. She straightened her hair, wore light leggings to mask her dark legs, leaned towards Cinderella as her favorite Disney princess, and preferred white Barbies to ones with darker skin because she was convinced that they were "prettier."
With her "blackness" covered up, she felt like she could fit in finally. People stopped touching her hair without invitation or asking her how often she washed it.
Lampman's class is designed to equip students with the tools to cope with and respond to systems of oppression that they may find themselves in, while also instructing students to identify and dismantle such systems with education and knowledge when they're found, or at least not participate in and contribute to such systems.
"The class is conceived as a way to create more awareness about race and ethnicity, to stimulate discussion, to create an action plan for our schools and to develop that without community as well and to work towards more just practices in our society and to create a more anti-racist worldview," Lampman explained.
Washington eventually was exposed to ideas that brought her around to accepting and embracing her uniqueness. In particular, seeing other young black women like her on Instagram overtly flaunting their natural curls led to her getting rid of her straightened hairstyle in favor of letting her hair be the way nature intended it.
"For the first time since I was five, I saw that natural hair was beautiful," she said. "It wasn't until last year where I took sociology and felt something click inside of me that it was time to express my blackness and be proud of who I am and be proud that I'm different."
Washington was joined by fellow students Zach Sabin and Annie Farrell.
Sabin, a senior at Saline High School recalled he and his classmates from the high school talking to Saline Middle School students about issues of race and equality.
"We were able to sit down with our peers in the middle school and try to work out what they thought were the most pressing issues in Saline as a whole," he said. "We sat there and not only tried to figure out how we can raise awareness of these issues, but how to tear down systems of oppression in our schools and society. I think it's very impactful that we're able to have these conversations with sixth and seventh graders."
Farrell said she was looking forward to returning to the middle school later this month to continue the discussion and expressed a desire to drill down into the elementary school grades with similar talks.
"We need to go down into the elementary school and start this earlier," she said.
Fellow ER&E classmate Nina Ellsworth singled out the collaboration with Jalen Rose Leadership Academy earlier this year as her favorite activity that has been a part of Lampman's class program. JRLA is a charter school in Detroit that is predominantly attended by African-American students.
Students from Saline schools have met with and participating in workshops with the JRLA students and will do so again during the first couple of months of 2020.
"One of the most important things that we can have referring to this work is that we need to sustain it," said Luke Gretkierewicz. He said he's looking forward to the JRLA meet-up at Wayne State University next year, because his main concern is keeping the momentum going.
ER&E student Griffin Leslie said she enjoyed having two police officers from the Ann Arbor Police Department speak to the students about their day-to-day experience as police officers, both in a general sense and also from the perspective of dealing with diverse groups of people in pursuing their police work. Other speakers who have visited the class have provided more educational and historical information on the topic of race and diversity.
Fellow student Abby Berwick said she wished should could take Lampman's class more than once.
Sabin said that he hopes that the conversations have happened in the two classes of nearly sixth Saline students continue outside of the class and branch out into the community having a broader impact than just what happens within the walls of Saline High School.
"I hope that while the class is coming to an end, the impact of the class is going to continue on," Sabin said.