‘We are the future’: Henrico students peacefully speak on the effects of systemic racism

‘We are the future’: Henrico students peacefully speak on the effects of systemic racism

HENRICO, Va. (WWBT) - Students at a Henrico high school are standing in solidarity, demanding change for systemic racism in the community and education in Henrico County.

Dozens of Douglas S. Freeman students gathered outside the high school Friday afternoon.

“In light of the current protests surrounding systemic racism in our country, my classmates and I have organized a peaceful demonstration on Freeman High School’s front lawn,” the organizer wrote.

Six student leaders, some who graduated, spoke about ways to support black students in the Freeman community and raise awareness to the systemic inequalities that they said exist at the school.

"It falls on us to spark conversations, to speak out about injustices to bring about change," one student said.

“We may be seen as kids, but we are the future,” said rising senior Ola Akinsanya. “We are future politicians, future nurses, and future doctors, the time is now. All lives don’t matter until black lives do.”

“Education is the solution,” said rising sophomore Henry Haggard.

Haggard said he is tired of seeing what’s happening in American when it comes to racial injustices.

“Police brutality, mass incarceration, we haven’t ended the war on drugs, the death penalty is still going, the school to prison pipeline is better than ever - it’s just endless I think,” he said.

It’s why Haggard decided to take a stand alongside his fellow classmates at Douglas Freeman demanding change.

That came in the form of six demands he put together for the school:

  • Make suspension and expulsions the last resort
    • If this punishment is considered, give details of misconduct to a third-party administrator without including the name, race, or gender of the student involved so as to avoid prejudice
  • Put a stop to “zero-tolerance” policies and School Resource Officer crackdowns on petty crimes on/off campus
    • Instead, stop the problem before it worsens by promoting methods like counseling and after school clubs
  • Create AP and Honors integration programs to encourage people of color to register
    • Make these program led by people of color, preferably alumni
  • Give mandatory black-led assemblies teaching the untold side of black history:
    • Abolitionist revolts, the Black Panthers, etc
  • Create incentives for reading books that tackle race through extra credit or summer reading options
    • The Hate U Give, Just Mercy, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Virginia State Penitentiary, When They Call You A Terrorist, Angry Black Girl, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  • Let history classes vote on which of the following non-partisan documentaries to watch:
    • The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, John Lewis: Get in the Way, The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Soundtrack for a Revolution, 13th, Freedom Riders, and Breaking the Huddle: The Integration of College Football

"We have a diverse population so it felt kind of wrong not to acknowledge it and speak about it, do something and want to make a change," Akinsanya said.

“Not only changes in the government and stuff but changes in people’s hearts and minds,” added rising senior Jaeden Lindsay. “People [have started] to open up to the idea of police brutality, who didn’t originally think it was a real thing, but now seeing that it’s real and it’s there - yeah I think there is change.”

Nearly every student held signs throughout the peaceful demonstration. In the days leading up to the event, Haggard created a large visual piece of work to protest police brutality.

“These are the names of people killed by police in the United States over the last couple of years,” he said. “I think there are far too many."

Among those names was George Floyd, who died shortly after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. For eight-minutes-and-46-seconds the group stood in silence.

"As an educator I'm not surprised they are leading the way and engaging in this dialogue in such a meaningful way; we see it every day in our halls and in our classroom,” said Principal John Marshall. “I have optimism for the future."

Marshall added the school plans to have more dialogue, most recently about the future of its nickname 'The Rebels".

School leaders are asking for input from the community, students, and even alum.

“To give us their take, their experience with the nickname, the mascot - how it felt and we’re listening,” Marshall said. “While our traditions contribute to our strong school culture, this moment in our nation’s history demands that we ask if our symbols and language reflect our core values.”

The Rebels nickname is viewed by some, Marshall said, as a name for those “who use our talents to challenge the status quo and change the world.” Others view the nickname as archaic, and a “dividing and unwelcoming force for many students.

"Obviously they're still taking into consideration people who may want to keep it, who may want to change it, but the fact that they're actually taking the time to consider and listen to people's voices... it's actually really great," Akinsanya said.

The process will entail collected experiences and opinions. A committee of community members, students and staff will compile the responses, analyze feedback to identify themes and create a report that will be a basis for a community dialogue.

The school, which opened in 1954, is named for Douglas Southall Freeman, a Richmond historian, author and journalist. While Freeman won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of both Robert E. Lee and George Washington, the school’s nickname was likely inspired by his Confederate subjects.

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