On June 1st, New Haven’s High School in the Community hosted their annual Social Justice Symposium. Students were given free license to discuss social issues that are relevant to their lives, and make proposals that inspire change in the community.
Members of The Grove along with other neighborhood projects were welcomed to attend the event, and give feedback to these kids on their projects and argumentative proposals.
It’s no surprise that in a city where the public schools are majority black and Hispanic, racial disparity would be a popular topic. Where most people feel comfortable skirting around the issue, these kids are fearless. In bringing up their own experiences, whether it be discrimination, gun violence, or childhood exposure to violence and abuse, they become more passionate about the cause and more confident in their call to action.
Riana Nhem, a junior at New Haven’s High School in the Community, stood by her impressive poster board that neatly displayed profiled cases of people who have been discriminated against in the workplace. She outlined and highlighted parts of Title Viii of the EEOC, under Discrimination Type: National Origin, which includes the act of intolerance/harassment due to language proficiency, physicality, or cultural traits. She pointed out a picture of Alejandra Cabrera, a woman who was debarred from running for office by the city counsel of San Louis, a predominantly Hispanic population, due to her lack of fluency in English. She also cited Bassil Masih’s case. An Iraqi hotel worker in Phoenix, Arizona, who complained to his management that his co-workers were continuously harassing him for his ethnicity. However, when management neglected to take action, Bassil filed a lawsuit and won a 5000,000 dollar settlement. Unlike Bassil Masih, Riana says, many immigrants aren’t aware or might be discouraged from taking action against their workplace.
When asked about her personal experience with language discrimination, Riana explained that her family migrated from Cambodia. “My uncles worked at Mohegan Sun for a while. They were constantly harassed for their accents and called derogatory names.” She went onto explain that many immigrants are not fully aware of the actions they can take to defend themselves, but by spreading awareness and educating one another, we are freeing people to seek justice.
Jeremy Cajigas, another junior, did his presentation on racial profiling. He shared his experience participating in school-held conferences, where he’d be on the panel discussing tensions between New Haven police officers and teenagers within the community. Most of his argument centered around the recent lawsuit being brought against the NYPD to reform an alleged stop-and-frisk quota. He said this policy consequently targets innocent minorities due to their communities’ reputation of criminal activity. His concern stems from the fact that many New Haven residents are black and Hispanic, so a policy such as this may heighten hostile relations between black teens and officers.
However, when I pointed out to Jeremy that most projects at this symposium regarded racism and police brutality, he admitted that many teens do tend to victimize themselves. “The best way for an individual to protect themselves is through respect,” he said, “and respect is a two-way street.” At the conferences he attends, local working police officers are invited, and while most kids behave, some do spout insults under their breath. “It’s a dangerous mentality that people have to get over.”
Jeremy also shared the strife he faces with his family and friends after telling them he wants to join the police force. “Mainly, I’m doing it to make a difference,” he says. A couple of years ago, a member of Jeremy’s family was fatally shot by a police officer due to a case of mistaken identity. Since then, his family has held contempt for the police force and Jeremy’s career choice. However, despite the opposition he faces, Jeremy is determined to pursue his dream and insists that he is doing the right thing.
Overall, the composure and dignity that these kids held themselves to while debating and presenting their arguments, was impressive. While many of their projects presented similar issues, their solutions were exceptionally diverse and unique. By opening up free, informal discussion, it allows students and people from the community to battle intellectually and inspire collaborative solutions.
At The Grove, it’s our mission statement to foster a community that inspires collaboration and innovative thinking. In a way, the Social Justice Symposium aspires to do the same thing. Students are thinking for themselves and applying their problem-solving skills to issues that relate to them.
When project members in the community get involved by coming to these events, it encourages students even more to express themselves and challenge opposing ideas with dignified responses. It teaches kids to embrace a world that’s filled with adversity and strife. Because in a community where people don’t just tolerate the freedom of expression, but encourages it as well, is a community that inspires intellectual growth.