In 2015 at an Applebee’s restaurant near my house in Andover, a Somali woman wearing a hijab and speaking Swahili was assaulted by another customer with a beer mug in a racially motivated attack.
I remember the aura of fear that surrounded my family as we watched our community catapulted into the news over this incident. All of a sudden, my parents were giving me lengthy lectures about my safety.
This girl could’ve been you, they told me.
They were right. Like this Somali woman, I also wear a hijab, and like her, I often speak a different language in public. Overnight, I was given a curfew and my parents were calling my phone on the hour. For several months, I wasn’t allowed to go out with my friends.
The fact is, my parents lived a life of fear. Fear that their children couldn’t even eat at a restaurant without being attacked. Fear that everything from their last names, to their accents, to their religion could be met with hostility.
In stark contrast to the anxiety I felt at home, no one at school seemed to know about the changes in my life. My school, Andover High School, has a small percentage of students of color, so I knew that most of my peers didn’t receive the same lectures in their homes. My teachers were also unaware of how this story affected me.
It was overwhelming and isolating. I felt alone at a time when I needed someone to talk to the most.
Now, two years later, my school is taking the steps to engage in conversations about race. A newly formed “equity team”—a collaboration between a group of teachers, students and school administration—is aiming to reach out to students of color to better understand their perspectives.
Andover High School Principal Becky Brodeur told me she created this team to tackle sometimes uncomfortable and painful issues of race, and to ensure that all students felt they had an advocate at school and felt safe.
“In a predominately white community, it can be a challenge to ask people to think about race,” Brodeur said. “We have to be purposeful when having those conversations, and make it okay to talk about race while doing it in a way that doesn’t blame or make people feel guilty—first, starting with our staff, and then with our students and continuing these conversations.”
Through dialogue about specific improvements students want to see, as well as through organizing community events, this group is beginning to enter into difficult conversations with students like myself.
As demographics continue to shift, efforts to connect with students of color is essential in a learning environment. Encouraging conversation, especially about difficult topics such as race and ethnicity, will help bridge the divide between students who may feel alienated and their teachers. Only through conversation will teachers and their students be able to understand one another as equals.
I’m one of those students. I joined my school’s “Student Voices” club, made up of predominantly students of color, to help raise awareness about our stories and the struggles that we face in our daily lives. The equity team has reached out to our club to find ways to better support students of color in our high school.
This year, the Student Voices group expanded from a handful of students to a larger group of both students and teachers. Having this platform to not only voice our concerns, but also to actually be heard by teachers, has already made an impact. By starting these conversations, I feel like my experiences and opinions are not only validated, but also appreciated. With this work, students of color like myself can finally receive the community they have been yearning for.
“I believe in the idea that all are welcome here, and that we’re stronger together,” Brodeur said. “I believe that when we know each other’s stories, we become a stronger community.
“It’s so much easier to cheer for the success of someone when we know who they are, and it’s a lot harder to dislike someone when you’ve sat across the table from them and really had a conversation.”