Students’ racial discussion causes a change in the culture of a Catholic school

LAWRENCEVILLE, New Jersey – A little over five years ago, Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville came to a crossroads.

The racial tension felt in communities across the country during the 2016 US presidential election also showed its face at the 65-year-old high school, founded by the Sisters of Mercy, on a tree-lined street in central New Jersey.

Some of the black students at the predominantly white high school said they felt that tension more than ever before. They felt harassed and scrutinized, outside the school but also in the hallways, the cafeteria and the classrooms.

And when members of the school’s African-American club got together one day this fall to talk about it — joined by the school’s principal and a faculty moderator in a religion class — they didn’t hold back. . They talked about the racial comments and names they’d heard, the offensive posts they’d seen, and the barrage of discrimination they felt – intentionally or not.

“We talked about it for a long time,” said Jahmai Person, a 2017 Notre Dame graduate. And when they were done, it turns out they didn’t just say it felt good to talk and move on. Instead, their conversation led to something that would have a ripple effect still felt on campus today.

Liz Ivins, the school’s principal at the time, urged students to remove what they had been talking about from the classroom. “It had to grow,” she told them, which meant they had to raise their concerns directly with the entire faculty at the school.

It seemed intimidating to them, but it was also perfectly in line with what they wanted: to be heard.

A few weeks later, about 12 members of the group joined hands in a circle in the school hallway and prayed together before joining the school faculty at the start of their monthly meeting.

Then they sat on semicircular stools at the front of the school library describing to about 100 white faculty members — seated at wooden tables in front of them — what their experience was like in as students of color in school.

Person, the first to speak, said it was “really tricky,” but he also knew it was a unique platform. They had the stage and the teachers were listening.

When they finished, several teachers hugged them and many said they had no idea what the students had been through. The students – who had been a little nervous about how it would turn out – took a collective exhale and hugged before eating pizza together in the religion class where they had their club meetings.

A few months later, the students changed the name of the African American Club to Shades Club to broaden its scope to encompass a more diverse membership of students of all ethnic backgrounds and white students as well.

The changes didn’t happen overnight at school, but they did happen. Azzeiza Beadle, also a 2017 Notre Dame graduate, said the change was palpable during the school liturgy planned by Shades students for Black History Month three months later.

Shades students also began to take leadership of the school by planning and organizing a charity fundraiser called Hoops for Hope, which became an annual event.

They continued to meet to discuss challenges, hear guest speakers, and plan annual retreats and liturgies, but something else was happening on a larger scale as well, showing them that the school leadership was behind them.

In recent years, Notre Dame has made diversity inclusion part of its strategic plan and an integral part of its mission, adding a diversity committee and representative to its school board. and a new staff position at the school: Service Learning and Diversity Inclusion Coordinator. .

Ellieen Ingbritsen, who had taught at Notre Dame for 25 years, was hired for the new position. Known to students as ‘Dr. Ing,’ she told Catholic News Service what the Shades Club did with their initial speaking out was a catalyst for school action .

A later incident at school, when a racial word was written in a student’s toilet, also underscored that something was wrong and something had to be done.

“It was an opportunity” to turn things around, Ingbritsen said. “And sometimes when you listen to the voice of God, it’s not a gentle call. Sometimes it’s an alert. And it was an alert.

Ingbritsen, who remembers being one of the few black students at the Catholic school she attended, said being alert goes with action and not one-time action either, but continuous. .

“We have to be aware. We have to be prophetic,” she told CNS. “We can’t just hide behind the fact that we started. We must continue to work the work of justice.

Eileen Marx, professor of theology at Notre Dame and facilitator of the Shades Club from 2015 to 2021, also thanks the students for moving the school in a new direction by bringing to light the injustices they saw.

She said their courageous discussion that day at the library provided “an extraordinary model of how to have respectful civil discourse on difficult subjects”.

And last December, a little over five years after that presentation, a few of those Notre Dame graduates and current students were back in that same library to encourage members of the current Shades band to take their seats at the tables.

The club’s seniors were now eighth graders when the group formed and they faced their own significant challenges that no one would have imagined in 2016. With the pandemic, their school first went virtual, then went hybrid the following school year, with students attending different weeks, before fully reopening in person this school year.

Additionally, just two months after the school campus closed, a national toll on racism has begun following the death of George Floyd. Across the country, people have started having conversations similar to those raised at Notre Dame.

The current Shades group, like the original members, are ready to address the injustices they see around them and engage in conversations that aren’t always easy, but they also face the very different challenge of reconnecting. with each other after the separation of the pandemic. their.

“A lot of us felt isolated and got used to being alone,” said Jaylen Bajnath, a senior.

But the community aspect of Shades also attracts many current members such as Mia Abousabe, also a senior. “As a Muslim student in a Catholic school,” she said, “I didn’t expect the community I arrived in.”

The current group is getting what the students did in 2016 and they also feel a strong sense of responsibility to maintain that momentum, wanting the underclass students to continue their involvement so that the school does not lose ground in its inclusion efforts.

“It’s really our responsibility to show them the space that was created years ago so they can continue it,” said senior Havelin Autry.

Bajnath agreed, saying, “Someone has to pick up the torch or we’ll be back where we started.”

Carol C. Reed