Rahma Elsheikh, 17, of Cedar Rapids holds up a sign May 31, 2020, while protesting with hundreds of others at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
CEDAR RAPIDS — Twin sisters who have advocated for removing school resource officers from the Cedar Rapids district and for classes to include more Black history, literature and art are proud of themselves for speaking up for equity, but are ready to leave behind “racial trauma” they say they experienced in the school system after they graduated last week from Kennedy High School.
Raafa and Rahma Elsheikh, 18, graduated Thursday after a year of navigating a pandemic and civil unrest fueled by the death of George Floyd, whose murder at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked protests globally.
Raafa (left) and Rahma Elsheikh pose for a photo together Thursday before the Kennedy High School commencement ceremony at the Alliant Energy PowerHouse in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The Elsheikh sisters have been advocating for racial justice since they were students at Franklin Middle School, along with their older sister, Afnan, who graduated from Kennedy High School in 2017. Afnan staged a school demonstration the day after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Students carried handmade signs declaring a stance against discrimination.
Rahma and Raafa took their sister’s lead when they got to Kennedy High, and say they were able to “learn from her mistakes and build on her achievements.”
In January 2020, they participated in a school walkout after two young men were shot and killed in Cedar Rapids and a high school student was robbed at gunpoint on campus. The students called for an end to gun violence and stricter gun control legislation.
“This is a fight so that school can once again become about learning — because the only thing I should be worried about when I go to school is my math test, not my life,” Raafa said in an interview with The Gazette in January 2020.
Shortly after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Raafa and Rahma presented seven Black Lives Matter demands on July 13, 2020, to the Cedar Rapids school board. They are proud of the awareness of inequity their demands have created, they said.
“Teachers are getting comfortable with getting uncomfortable talking about race,“ Raafa said.
Their demands included:
- Removing school resource officers — police — from school buildings;
- Class curricula should teach more Black history;
- A therapist of color be available to students of color, and the district work to recruit more staff members of color;
- and the district should enforce stricter disciplinary action against students who use racial slurs.
“It’s a lot of pressure on us to take on the district’s work for them and try to fix a system they make us survive in, and don’t give us the necessary resources to cope with the stress they put us through as Black students,” Raafa said.
A video taken by a bystander at the May 25, 2020, scene showed officer Derek Chauvin with his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. A jury in April convicted the fired officer of murder charges.
“It saddened me that people had to watch this video of a man dying to finally speak up about the Black Lives Matter movement,” Raafa said.
Sisters Rahma (left) and Raafa Elsheikh of Cedar Rapids read a poem together during an organized protest June 13, 2020, at Bever Park in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Black Lives Matter demands
Raafa said she feels “obligated” to be someone who advocates for racial justice and it dictates a lot of her life.
In response, the district created a Superintendent’s Advisory Council, which both Raafa and Rahma were invited to join. The council has held five meetings, including an all-day retreat in which 30 students participated, and has a total of 76 members.
The committee identified three topics within the first two meetings that the majority of students wanted addressed, Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said in an email. The topics are celebrating diversity, equity and inclusion; peer-to-peer tutoring at the high school level; and mentoring younger students.
“There are voices to be heard from other students who have worked diligently on committee projects they are proud of,” Kooiker said.
The sisters, however, said they stopped attending the meetings “pretty quickly” in part because they felt their questions about removing school resource officers and modifying class curricula weren’t being addressed.
Kooiker said the district takes the questions about school resource officers seriously. The district has met with the Cedar Rapids Police Department four times this school year to discuss the program, including:
- Review of the current state;
- What are the needs of the system;
- What is the purpose of the program;
- What are the measures of success;
- And what is the focus and critical actions for next year.
Starting in June, the district also will be provided monthly data from the police department about arrests and citations made by school resources officers that will be broken down by race, Kooiker said.
As for curriculum concerns, Kooiker said the work will begin this summer after the district finishes out a challenging year of providing learning during a pandemic and derecho.
Leaders in the Black student Union
The district also supported the creation of a Black student Union, an organization working to build up a community of Black students at all four Cedar Rapids high schools — Washington, Kennedy, Jefferson and Metro.
Raafa said the Black student Unions have been a “student-led effort,” but she “applauds” the district for supporting them.
Speaking out against police violence
During Chauvin’s murder trial, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man, was fatally shot April 13 in Minnesota after, authorities said, an officer meant to use a Taser but mistakenly drew her gun instead.
Minutes after the Chauvin verdict on April 20, Rahma told The Gazette that this “won’t prevent the deaths that will happen after.”
And in the 24 hours after Chauvin’s conviction, six people were fatally shot by officers across the United States. One of those killed was Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, of Columbus, Ohio, who was shot by police four times as, authorities said, she was swinging a knife and threatening someone.
“There are other ways the police could have approached that situation,” Raafa said. “She did not deserve to die.”
“When is it going to stop? The answer is really never,” she continued. “It makes me angry to see people making excuses for police officer shootings.”
Rahma said she now feels “numb” to constant police violence. “Not to invalidate Black individuals who are being murdered, but it’s the same situation with different names.”
The sisters said that a lot of the Black Lives Matter activism today is performative and reactionary.
“If we want to move forward in a way that isn’t cyclical, it really does start with education,” Rahma said.
“A lot of people in our generation are really persistent and will keep working until there is true change,” she said.
Racial equity work continued
Rahma and Raafa this fall will be attending Princeton University in New Jersey.
“I’m really excited to leave the school district behind because of a lot of racial trauma it’s caused me,” Raafa said.
Raafa said she feels like it’s up to historically marginalized students to do the “uncompensated work to fix our racial system.”
They both credit the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success for giving them the confidence to stand up against injustice. The Cedar Rapids academy provides students an education they can’t find in a public school classroom. It teaches students about Black history, literature, math, science, and a postsecondary seminar to help students prepare for college and how to be successful once there.
“It helped make me apologetically Black,” Rahma said. “After actually being taught what Black people have been through and continue to go through, it made me realize someone has to do the work and be the one to speak up. There’s no guarantee people after us will speak up.”
“What keeps me going is if I’m not going to do it who is?” Raafa said.
Kennedy student Raafa Elsheikh speaks during a Jan. 29, 2020, protest at the school in Cedar Rapids. The walkout and march followed three gun incidents involving young adults and teenagers in Cedar Rapids in less than a week, including an armed robbery in the school parking lot. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
At Princeton, Rahma plans to study mathematics and get certificates in African American studies and computer science. Raafa plans to study bio engineering and also get a certificate in African American studies.
They plans to continue racial equity work at Princeton.
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