SOUTH KINGSTOWN – For weeks, protesters in every state and in countries all around the world have been coming together to speak out against police brutality and to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The nationwide outcry for justice and reform has remained steadfast since video surveillance of George Floyd’s death, at the hands of a white Minneapolis Police officer, went viral more than three weeks ago. While all of the officers directly involved in Floyd’s death have all been fired and are now facing charges, many Americans don’t believe this goes far enough, and are still gathering to protest systematic racism.
In South Kingstown, community members didn’t stop with just one demonstration. On Tuesday, while many Americans watched Floyd’s funeral broadcast on live television, South Kingstown’s younger residents took to the streets once more to continue protesting.
Hundreds kneeled together on Kingstown Road that day for eight minutes and 46 seconds – the exact amount of time Officer Derek Chauvin was seen placing his knee on Floyd’s neck.
While the demonstration drew a crowd of all different backgrounds, ethnicities and ages, the organizers of the event and most of the protesters there that day were high school and college-aged students.
It was a peaceful protest, which several residents felt compelled enough to share with members of the school committee later that evening, praising young people in this town for their actions.
The actions of students to respond to police brutality and systematic racism also helped spark discussions of how the district can help correct racial inequities in the school district.
School Committee Chair Stephanie Canter opened the meeting with remarks about the current moment in which we’re in, “and the racism that permeates every component of society.”
“When George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered, an alarm was once again sounded that we must do something to address this deadly racism, and the time is now,” Canter said. “Critical knowledge, radical empathy and intentional action are non-negotiable.”
“This is a time for active, anti-racism and nothing less,” she added.
Canter said she’s committed to understanding racial disparities and South Kingstown’s own history of oppression, as well as the ways public education has played into this narrative.
“I plan to lead this school committee toward action, in order to ensure that every student, especially the most marginalized, is provided with the schools they deserve,” Canter said. “Black Live Matter. Until the world feels that in their bones, we will march with you and we will do everything we can to challenge racism that may exist within our school system.”
One of the community members “super impressed by all of our young people” was Fil Eden, who stressed the need for history textbooks and English literature that better teach the experiences and treatments of minorities in our country.
Another parent echoed a very similar sentiment, pointing out that her child’s elementary school hardly acknowledged Black History Month this year. Her children had asked why they weren’t talking about this in school, and why they weren’t learning about Native Americans either.
“In high school, I remember taking native American history and black history, and think ‘There’s nothing in here that truly indicates what truly happened,” said Susana Vasquez. “We have to educate our children – black, white, Native American – so that everybody can be aware of things that happened in the past, how to make things better and how to move forward.”
Community member Becci Davis also made a comment about the importance of accurate history, and how it can help start difficult, uncomfortable discussions.
“I believe the way to move forward is to tell ourselves the truth about our past,” she said. “Education is the perfect venue for that – to tell the truth about how the past is connected to the present.”
Later in the evening, her comments were circled back to by school committee member Alycia Collins, who pointed out that only 200 years ago, there were slave owners living in South Kingstown.
“That’s not a lot of time,” Collins said. “Just think about how fast your kids grow up. I have a 19-year-old, and 20 years goes by so fast.”
“That’s not something people talk about, because it’s super uncomfortable,” she added.
The mistreatment and experiences of African Americans and Native Americas need to be taught in South Kingstown, Collins said, and the district needs to figure out a way to give them an adequate education.
During the committee’s discussion of racial equity, data from the Rhode Island Department of Education from two years ago, which broke down post secondary enrollment, standardized testing performance, chronic absenteeism and suspension rates, clearly indicates achievement gaps when it comes to race.
In nearly every case, white students performed better in school than Native American students, African American students, Hispanic students and multiracial students.
“It should make everyone upset, no matter who you are,” Collins said. “It shouldn’t matter what your last name is, it shouldn’t matter what color your skin is.”
In one of Collins’ first conversations with Superintendent Linda Savastano, she shared concerns about how the district is really undeserving minority students. Over the past year, Savastano has continued to work toward closing the gaps, Collins said, but thankfully protests have brought these conversations to the front and center in everyone’s minds.
‘This is hard work, and it’s really hard to do alone or in small groups,” Savastano said. “You need everybody to support, understand, have a conversation, lean into it, fix it.”
“It’s time for action,” she added.
School committee member Kate Macinanti pointed out the need for professional development around topics or racial equity and systemic racism, because it’s possible that the adults won’t fully understand the issues on hand, or how to introduce these topics with students in their classrooms.
If the protests are any indicator, however, it’s that students understand these issues and want to fix them, according to School Committee Vice Chair Sarah Markey.
“I think the youth, as you’ve seen in South Kingstown and across the country, are lightyears ahead of us on racial justice,” Markey said.
She advocated that there’s a need for the entire community to be actively anti-racist, though, and that non-minorities need to seek out ways to be both an ally and a partner in addressing these issues.
“This moment is a moment to act,” she said. “Our students need more from us.”
Another protest was held in South Kingstown the following day, drawing out another large crowd of community members. Protests, discussions of racial inequality continue