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John Railey: Hear these young people
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John Railey: Hear these young people

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The Black teenager was finally being heard on issues of structural racism, just as other Black youths and adults are being heard today.

“Kaycee,” then 17 and a rising senior at an East Winston High School, spoke to researchers from Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) about the fear he feels from others as an African-American male:

“I don’t know what there is to fear, but it’s like they see us, and they’re like, ‘It’s a tall dark man, what is he going to do? Is he going to beat me up? Is he going to rob me? Is he going to rape me or something?’ And it’s like, ‘No, I’m just here to buy some juice.’ I feel like my skin color and how people think about me are the biggest steps for me to get over. Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll even get a job here because I’m a Black man.”

Kaycee spoke to researchers as part of a program that CSEM Research Fellow Charity Griffin started, YouthRise (Youth Research in Sustaining Economics), that is based on youth-led participatory research, “a framework that centers on voices traditionally silenced in academic scholarship,” Griffin wrote in a paper on the program recently published on the CSEM website.

The program, which continues this summer, virtually if necessary, concentrates on building trust among students of Title 1 schools in East Winston. Griffin is very intentional about building that trust, referring to the students in grades 8 through 12 as “collaborators” in research aimed at breaking down barriers to economic mobility by getting policymakers to hear these students on the front lines.

The quotes from Kaycee and other student collaborators in Griffin’s paper are revealing. (Griffin identified the students by pseudonyms to protect their confidentiality.)

Consider this quote from “Jasmine,” then a 14-year-old rising ninth-grader from “a neighborhood adjacent downtown Winston-Salem” on “the ongoing gentrification occurring in her community and her frustration with its impact:

“They like to take things over and run things. For instance, rich people … It’s a lot of rich people coming in our neighborhoods and just doing stuff. … Why are you all here? Why are you all moving over here from where you all live in a nice neighborhood, and then you come here to the ‘worst’ neighborhoods?”

The newcomers, she said, would limit her access to “internships, jobs and housing.”

Other collaborators spoke to Griffin and three WSSU student interns about school concerns “regarding depleted infrastructure, lack of technology equipment, the high number of long-term (school) substitutes who did not engage them with the curriculum, large class sizes and teacher perception of incompetency due to their race as key issues in their Title 1 (or low-income) schools,” Griffin wrote. “Most notably, these students shared that they fully recognized these as observations from their own school spaces, but that ‘other high schools,’ located on a ‘different side of town’ do not have these same ‘issues’ because they have ‘more money.’”

“Joshua,” then a 17-year-old rising 12th grader, elaborated:

“You know there is a big difference in what school looks like for us (at high school), and I take school seriously, but I know that we don’t get the same stuff other kids do. I’ll definitely have to work harder to get those types of opportunities. (School) may work out to make my life better in in the end and it may not.”

Other students, however, spoke of their belief in education, influenced by their parents or other significant adults in their lives.

Griffin writes that some students “spoke of a highly visible police presence within their community and professed to know that ‘other,’ i.e. majority white neighborhoods in Winston-Salem, do not experience police surveillance in the same ways nor have the same type of engagement (e.g. physical or verbal force) as residents in their neighborhood with law enforcement.”

One 14-year-old girl said that “most people don’t really value females and their opinions nowadays, and especially African-American females.” Others spoke of “a culture of discrimination they felt existed in relation to the interactions between residents in their neighborhoods and local government,” Griffin writes. “Kevin,” then a 16-year-old rising 11th grader, said:

“(City government officials) need to come and talk to the people who … are barely making it paycheck-to-paycheck a month. If (city government officials) talk to us, they will understand what we need to survive.”

These students, from Griffin’s current summer program, and others here and nationwide must be heard. Anything less will deny our shared future.

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