'I’m not alone': Minnesota students of color lead movement for equity in schools

A young woman wearing a hijab speaks into a microphone.
Ahlaam Abdulwali speaks before the Minnetonka March for Black Lives on Sept. 12.
HP Rogers | Courtesy of HPR Photography

When Ahlaam Abdulwali, then a junior at Minnetonka High School, saw the video of a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, she was shocked and deeply upset. 

But the next day, in online classes, she said none of her teachers brought up the police killing.

“No one talked about it. And so basically it made me feel very alone,” Abdulwali said. “I was again reminded that I can be shot or my siblings can be shot dead in the street by a police officer and no consequences and that my life does not matter in this country. But no one seemed to care except for me and my fellow Black students. And that kind of sums up my experience at Minnetonka where you feel like you just don’t matter.”

It’s not to say district leaders didn’t weigh in on Floyd’s killing. Her school principal sent an email to students days after his death. And in a Facebook post more than a week later, Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson decried the “tragic, senseless” nature of it and acknowledged a country wrestling with serious and underlying racism.  

But by then Abdulwali said had she found much more urgent and compelling voices talking about George Floyd online from fellow students of color. Many of them shared the racist experiences they’d had at Minnetonka: being called racist slurs, being placed in ESL classes despite speaking fluent English; being taunted for using chopsticks at lunch. 

Then she saw one of her classmates had put together a petition, asking Minnetonka district leaders to make changes to root out discrimination, racism and inequality at school.

Jinhyoung Bang, a junior at Minnetonka, had written a petition demanding changes in the district. Some of the things she asked for included diversity training for staff, an anti-racist curriculum and a hate speech dress code.

To Abdulwali, that petition seemed like a solution she wanted to be a part of. She reached out and started helping craft demands and organize rallies and demonstrations. She and other students, parents, alumni and staff started a group they’re calling the Minnetonka Coalition for Equitable Education. 

“I never really felt like I had the power to change anything,” said Bang, who is Korean American. “But after the murder of George Floyd, and everyone was really like raising awareness, and exposing what their experience at Minnetonka, I really felt I’m not alone in this and I know that I can make change and help other people realize they’re also not alone in this experience and together we can make a positive difference.” 

What’s happening in Minnetonka is similar to movements happening in secondary schools all over the state. High school students and recent graduates are pushing for anti-racist changes to curriculum, school boards, and school discipline policies, and for the removal of school resource officers from buildings. Many say they’re inspired by the protests over Floyd’s killing and that change is urgently needed in Minnesota’s historically disparate education system

‘Adults are asleep’

In some places, student demands are leading to changes. 

In September, the Hopkins school board voted to do away with school resource officers after a group of current and former students presented a review and recommended the district remove the officers from district buildings. 

“We want Hopkins schools to be a place where all youth and children feel welcomed, safe and valued. That isn’t currently possible when police are in our schools,” said Muna Musse at a Hopkins board meeting in September. The 18-year old Somali American woman and 2020 Hopkins graduate spent much of her summer helping the board survey students and research the impact of school resource officers on safety.

For Superintendent Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed, listening to the concerns and suggestions of students and recent graduates like Musse is just one step toward dismantling inequality and building up a system that equally serves all students in her district. 

“Our young people are beyond brilliant,” Mhiripiri-Reed said. “It’s very important for us as adults, whether we’re in the educational space or other spaces supporting education to see how smart our young people are. They really are going to lead and take over the world. And it is our responsibility to prepare them, to really trust them.” 

Minnesota schools have long led the nation in educational disparities across race and socioeconomic status. And Mhiripiri-Reed said she is concerned school leaders may not be doing enough to recognize students’ lived experiences and how urgently change is needed.

“I think many of us adults are asleep. I think our young people — our kids, our teenagers, our mature K-12 learners — are awake. And what I fear is an educational revolt,” Mhiripiri-Reed said. “What about young people who are now feeling more and more unrest about being unseen in the educational space? I would not be surprised if young people begin to protest in their own ways to let us know that their educational experiences have not met a high standard.”

The call for adults in the schools, she said, is “to wake up and be courageous.”

A teenager holding pamphlets and walking in a neighborhood.
Stillwater High School senior Will Raymond walks though neighborhoods Oct. 3 to hang literature on door knobs listing school board candidates he and other students are backing during the November election. Will is 17 years old and not yet old enough to vote but he's optimistic. "We're hitting the reset button to be nonpartisan and do what's best for the kids," he said.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Will Raymond, a senior at Stillwater High School, has been asking adults to listen to students for a long time. He’s a junior student council representative at his high school, and said he’s been going to protests since he was young.

Raymond, who is Lakota, Ojibwe and white, has organized student protests, started podcasts and pushed for changes in his school and community for several years. He said he was moved to urgency after Floyd was killed. 

“The kids, when they saw George Floyd, they’re like, wow,” Raymond said. “We realized we gotta do something because we realized our older generations — truthfully all the way down to the millennials — they have failed us.”

He organized a protest in June to keep his school board from firing former Stillwater Superintendent, Denise Pontrelli — someone Raymond and some former students of color considered an ally to their calls for racial justice. Despite the protests, Stillwater’s board voted Pontrelli out. Now Raymond wants his community to vote the board out.

“Bring in equitable school board members that want to make changes, that want to bring equity into our schools, that are pro-teacher, pro-student, pro-student voice,” Raymond said. 

A teenager holding a mask as he talks with a group of people.
In the Stillwater High School parking lot, senior Will Raymond hands out neighborhood maps to volunteers before they hang literature on door knobs listing school board candidates that he and other students and alumni are backing during the November election.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Stillwater Board Chair Sarah Stivland said privacy rules prevented her from commenting on the decision to fire Pontrelli but said it had nothing to do with with equity issues. 

“There are a lot of really good people leading our district now who also have this [equity] as front and foremost,” Stivland said. “For me, the racial equity question, the equality question really comes down to how do we treat people? And regardless of the color of your skin, are we being respectful to all people?”

‘Black at Benilde’

It’s not just students at public schools who are pushing their administration for change. A torrent of alumni and students have also started demanding anti-racism action at private schools. Their strategies seem to be working.

Obasi Lewis, a 2016 graduate of Benilde St. Margaret started a “Black at Benilde” Instagram account in June to highlight the racism that he and other current and former students experienced at his alma mater.

“It was to give those who didn’t have a voice at the time ... to share their experiences,” Lewis said. “And put some external pressure on administration to do a little better so that students don’t experience anything like the alumni had again.” 

Lewis, who identifies as a Black gay man, said being a student at Benilde was an experience in high academic achievement, but also in code switching, enduring occasional racial slurs, ignorance, defensiveness and sometimes hostility from fellow students as well as adults. Now, after listening to the accounts of racism from current and former faculty, staff and students, he knows he wasn’t the only one to have those experiences. 

He’s spent the last several months pouring his energy into sharing those accounts and urging Benilde leaders to make changes such as hiring a chief diversity officer, mandating diversity training for staff, making space for gender neutral restrooms and modifying curriculum. 

But Lewis said he and his fellow alumni of color and students didn’t hear much from school leadership until City Pages reported on their stories. 

“It made us be heard,” Lewis said. “It forced administration to acknowledge that these stories were happening, they weren’t made up. There’s actually a person connected to this account. … There’s a community connected to the account. We’re not planning on stopping posting until some actual change is happening.”

The president of Benilde St. Margaret, Adam Ehrmantraut, said the school has asked Lewis to serve on its diversity, equity and inclusion board committee. They’ve also hired a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant to analyze school policies and identify areas for improvement, and they’ve held trainings for students and staff on inclusion and respectful dialogue.

“It’s been a really interesting time to see the sense of agency, particularly with our alumni and our students, frankly. It’s unlike other times I’ve seen in education and it’s pretty impressive,” Ehrmantraut said.  

The pace of change

After watching young people mobilize and organize following the killing of George Floyd, Daniela Kunkel-Linares said she was inspired to think bigger and push harder for change at her former school, Jefferson High in Bloomington.

The 2017 graduate, along with other students and alumni, put together a list of demands for their school board. They want the district to remove SROs from schools, rename Jefferson High School, restructure the curriculum and put in place a policy to investigate student complaints of racist incidents. 

A young woman wearing glasses framed by tree leaves.
Daniela Kunkel-Linares, 21, helped create the Bloomington Antiracist Coalition, which is made of former and current students who are looking for anti-racist change in Bloomington Public Schools.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

For Kunkel-Linares, the work feels urgent, coming after years of education in what she remembers as a very white-centered environment. 

“Being a Latina student and going to a predominantly white high school was very complicated and hard,” Kunkel-Linares said. “I don’t think that I was really given a chance to explore the part of my identity that was Latina.”  

Bhavya Sivaram is a senior at Jefferson High School and Indian American. She remembers the  occasional racist and xenophobic interactions with classmates and staff, including times where  kids made fun of music and cultural traditions that were important to her, and told her to “go back to India.”

After Floyd’s killing, Sivaram said she started speaking out about racism on social media. 

“I just felt a lot of anger because I have so many friends of color. … It hurt to see them so mad and so angry and so scared,” Sivaram said. “I realized that the only way I can really contribute and change things is to be a lot more vocal about this.”

It wasn’t long before Sivaram found Kunkel-Linares as well as other friends like Yanyan Zeng and Anna Gaul — also 17 and seniors at Jefferson — who wanted to change things at their school. 

A young woman smiling at the camera while standing outside.
Bhavya Sivaram says she felt empowered to speak about her own encounters with racism at her Bloomington high school after the killing of George Floyd.
Courtesy of Bhavya Sivaram

District leaders have said they’ve met with students multiple times and want to listen and understand. But Rick Kaufman, the district’s spokesperson, said changes take time and are especially difficult when leadership are scrambling to meet the state’s new public health demands. 

“It’s not moving at the speed they want. It’s moving at the speed we’re best able to focus on it while managing this incredible pandemic we’re dealing with,” Kaufman said. “We’ve not let any of these calls to action go. They’re still on our radar, they’re still in progress.” 

But Zeng and other students and alumni said they’re tired of being patient. They’re worried about losing momentum, and say they want change at their own pace — not the pace that school leaders are suggesting. 

“A lot of times we say something like, ‘We would like to have this changed,’ and the adult responds, ‘That’s nice, but look at everything we’re already doing,’” Zeng said. “They kind of just divert the question and change the subject and say, ‘We already have these things, so it’s all good how it is right now.”