Rachel Wong, Grade 11, Co-Editor-in-Chief
George Floyd’s brutal murder in June at the knees of a Minneapolis police officer catalyzed the most powerful, inclusive anti-racism movement since the 1960s. As Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country, discussions about systemic racism became common in schools, amongst friends and family, and on social media platforms. In due course, many Americans began to hold themselves and others accountable for individual biases. Systemic racism, after having gone unaddressed for decades, began to have a featured role in the American dialogue.
In August, students at the High School of American Studies followed suit. Danielle Johnson, Zoe Markman, Habiba Sayma, Anabelle Medina, Aisha Baiocchi, Jade Lozada, and Charlotte Ritz-Jack founded the Committee for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (CEDI) to advocate for a more representative student body and inclusive school environment. “As a team, we felt that to truly fight against the systemic racism that exists in our world, we have to start locally—by diversifying and calling out our predominantly white school,” said Habiba Sayma, who graduated from HSAS last year.
In June, in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the HSAS student government issued a letter to the student body that said, “the High School of American Studies denounces anti-Blackness and racism of all kinds.” In response, Johnson, Markman, Sayma, Medina, Baiocchi, Lozada, and Ritz-Jack wrote, “In order to commit to anti-racism, we [the High School of American Studies] must confront our own role in perpetuating oppressive systems.”
They had three demands: equitable admission practices, a welcoming school environment, and a representative curriculum.
“Our letter was inspired by Hunter College’s letter,” said Zoe Markman, another member of the 2020 graduating class. “We wanted to make sure that students of color felt safe, felt included, felt supported, and, in addition to that, we noticed there hadn’t really been a channel for discussions of race to happen. These conversations were only happening when students were audacious enough to bring it up to the teacher [. . .] Everyone knew there was something wrong, but there wasn’t a channel to discuss it or deal with it outside of a DOE complaint. We wanted to create a third path for students to have conversations that needed to happen.”
By August, the letter inspired the formation of a full-fledged committee to address the issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity at HSAS.
The committee’s first demand, equitable admission practices, calls for a reform of admission standards, including the repeal of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and the dedication of one-third of admissions to the Discovery Program. The committee hopes that making these reforms will diversify the student body, which is currently 59% white.
The CEDI’s second demand, a welcoming school environment, is geared towards the student body and faculty. The committee proposed the formation of a School Equity Board in hopes that it “would voice the concerns of students and advocate for potential changes to the administration on all cases involving school equity.” While a School Equity Board has yet to be established, the school approved the committee’s request that a Black Student Union could circumvent the long club creation process.
The committee’s third and final demand, a representative curriculum, encouraged the expansion of the HSAS history curriculum and the creation of an African American History elective. The CEDI proposed teaching units through the perspectives of people of color, asking that teachers spotlight diverse cultures in length rather than mentioning them in passing.
The committee was met with support from other HSAS students, many of whom attend their regular meetings. “I joined the club because I wanted to promote more representation at the school. I think the CEDI is a big step towards bettering HSAS,” said Thays Garcia, a junior at HSAS. Similarly, the administration found it just as enlightening and was extremely supportive, according to Markman. “Teachers and Mr.Weiss and the guidance counselors gave up so much of their time over the summer to plan out how to approach this,” she said. “I definitely commend Mr. Weiss and the faculty for working with us.”
Since the start of the year, the CEDI has held meetings with guest speakers, such as Kahlil Greene, Yale’s first Black Ex-Student Body President, and New York State Senator Jamaal Bailey. The Committee has also organized a mentorship program, matching upperclassmen with incoming freshmen, and hosted a meeting encouraging students to pre-register or register to vote. “The CEDI is taking great strides toward diversifying HSAS by bringing awareness, and making it known that something needs to change,” Garcia remarked. “It’s given me hope for the future of HSAS, and I’m really proud to know that our school has a club like the CEDI working towards making HSAS a better community.”