by Melanie Jongsma
LANSING and CALUMET CITY, Ill. (June 4, 2020) – “I am determined to provide an outlet for our student scholars, namely our Black and Brown student scholars,” wrote District 215 Superintendent Teresa Lance in a letter to D215 families on Sunday, May 31. At the time the letter was written, anger and grief were swelling about George Floyd’s May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police, and some of the fallout of that anger was beginning to reach Calumet City and Lansing.
The swirl of emotions includes anger at the disproportionate police reaction, horror at the nine minutes of brutality Floyd suffered, and despair at the addition of another Black name to a list of fatalities. As violence and looting—under the guise of protests—reached Torrence Avenue on Sunday afternoon (see May 31 article), frustration increased for youth trying to make sense of the world. Lance felt the need to “do something” to help.
Undeterred by the COVID-19 pandemic’s necessary restrictions on connecting, she made arrangements for an online meeting for “several of our Black male staff and non-staff members to sit, ‘virtually’ with our sons, nephews, cousins, and grandsons. The purpose of this event is to provide our Black males with a safe space to talk candidly about their feelings and to leave with a renewed sense of hope and purpose.”
Hopeless, hated, and hunted
The virtual meeting took place on Monday, June 1. TF North reading specialist and Head Speech Coach Shaun Posley was among the participants. Posley had already been hearing from some of his students who were having a difficult time handling recent events, so he was eager for the dialogue.
During the meeting he wrote down three words that captured the feelings of the young Black men who were participating: hopeless, hated, and hunted.
“That was hard to hear,” said Posley.
“It was very easy to see the fear and raw emotions of young Black males,” added Elvis Slaughter, a teaching assistant at TF South who joined the virtual meeting. Slaughter also took note of the potential personal repercussions recent events have on today’s youth, ranging from being afraid of White police officers, to being tired of always having to fight for respect, to wondering if going to college even makes a difference in a hateful world.
A longer perspective
The Black adults in the meeting could relate to those emotions, but were also able to offer the longer perspective that maturity and experience provide. “We shared our experiences of dealing with similar racial issues—protests, police power abuse, and riots,” said Slaughter, recalling vividly the violence following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Sharing those memories helped today’s students see that they are not alone and that this moment is not the whole story.
DeAndre Tillman is an alderman in Calumet City, and TF North is in his district, so he was invited to the virtual meeting as well. Tillman understands the frustration and hopelessness that our community’s young Black men are wrestling with—he has those feelings himself, but he works hard to channel them into constructive change. “I always try to make sure that my mood remains as positive as possible,” he said, with a hint of tiredness in his voice. “I want to reflect that back to the younger generation.”
Seeing the quiet good
Because of their skin color, young people in Calumet City have been unfairly judged for the actions of outsiders who came to the area and destroyed local businesses. Tillman heard their frustration at not having a way to express strong feelings about George Floyd—protesting the injustice only leads to comparisons with rioters and looters.
So Tillman hopes that the media and social media attention on the looters—many of whom were young people—does not drown out the quiet, positive contributions local youth are making in our communities. He was impressed with the student participants in the virtual meeting—after having a forum to express themselves, they re-committed to their communities. In fact, a group of young people spent the next day at River Oaks Mall, helping with clean-up.
“One of our young men from TF North was out at 7:00am cleaning the community the day after the rioting happened,” Tillman said. “They were out there before me!”
Working for change—together
Tillman hopes that the riots and looting do not distract people from the issue that originally sparked the protests. “We have to continue bridging that divide between police and the community,” he said. “We have to hold the bad police accountable and uplift the good police officers, and make sure we separate the two.” He has already scheduled meetings with young people about the importance of voting and participating in the system in order to change it. “We have to be more intentional about participating in the system,” he said. “We have these issues that we want, but if folks who are making the policies know that you’re not voting, oftentimes your issues will be overlooked. That’s unfortunate, but that’s a fact.”
Posley also finds hope in the protests that are happening. He has noticed that it’s not just Blacks who are marching and pleading for change. “Everyone is together,” he said. “All races.” And he remembers seeing a protest in another state where the White marchers surrounded the Black marchers in order to shield them from potential violence by onlookers. “I thought that was just beautiful,” he said.
Black men in District 215 are already planning more conversations—at the request of the students. Some meetings will be exclusively for Black men; some will include Whites and other ethnicities. The goal of each conversation will be ongoing learning, continued healing, and intentional community.
The process won’t necessarily be easy. “This is a time to address the uncomfortable,” said Posley. “It’s time for us to kind of ‘learn each other.'”
“Our community is strong,” said Tillman. “Our community will rebound from this. We all have to make sure that we work together intentionally in lockstep toward achieving a better future for us all.”
“I’m quite sure that things will get better,” said Slaughter. “It always does. It’s not better right now, but we’ll get there.”
“We see progress,” added Posley, “but it’s a steep mountain.”