To fight racial injustice, let’s listen to youth | #students | #parents

At a dinner party in 1935, the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw was conversing with a young woman who said, “What a wonderful thing is youth!” Shaw sagely replied, “Yes — and what a crime to waste it on children.”

The exchange was memorialized in the well-known but acerbic adage: “Youth is wasted on the young.”

With all due respect to Shaw, I beg to differ — especially after meeting sisters Nene and Ekene Okolo, ages 20 and 17, who are using their talents to combat racial injustice. The pair are being honored at the National Conflict Resolution Center’s Peacemaker Awards on May 15.

In the aftermath of the guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd — and in the face of the recent death at police hands of another Black man, Daunte Wright, in nearby Brooklyn Center, Minn. — the impact of the Okolos’ accomplishments is magnified.

Last June, the sisters started an Instagram account, @BlackinPUSD, inviting students and alumni of color to share their experiences in the Poway Unified School District. The district serves 36,433 youth who reside in Poway and other communities in northeast San Diego; more than half (54 percent) are students of color.

The page drew more than 1,200 anonymous submissions from Black, Latinx and Asian students, who described racial slurs and racist incidents fueled by stereotypes. One particularly disturbing story: A middle school teacher staged a Civil War era re-enactment in class, assigning roles based on race. Black students played the slaves, while White students played their owners.

Even when students reported their experiences to school authorities, they were often downplayed, with few consequences. In some cases, it was teachers or staff who displayed racism.

But to the sisters’ surprise, it wasn’t just students and alumni who spoke up. Parents also took to the platform to share their own stories about witnessing racism in PUSD and the impact it had on their students and families.

While they didn’t set out with an agenda in mind — beyond creating a safe space where students of color could be heard — the Okolos’ work has contributed to immediate and long-term changes in Poway Unified. The district unanimously adopted a racial equity and inclusion plan that affirms its commitment to fighting racism and systemic inequity.

The plan also acknowledges the need to provide a more racially and culturally diverse curriculum that promotes inclusivity, leading to the creation of courses in ethnic studies and ethnic literature. Now the sisters are collaborating with Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, to introduce these same courses in other school districts throughout San Diego County.

Hiring practices have changed, too, since the launch of @BlackinPUSD. The district has brought on an additional 12 Black teachers and one Black administrator. The sisters assisted with recruitment efforts.

It’s not easy to effect lasting change. But these remarkable young women took all the right steps:

  • It wasn’t about them. Even though the Okolos had their own experiences with racism in PUSD, they remained anonymous for a time. This encouraged others to speak more freely. (Their parents even asked the sisters if they had heard of the @BlackinPUSD Instagram account.)
  • They built relationships with the right people. Collaborators include the principal of Westview High School (which Ekene attends), the associate superintendent of Poway Unified and the superintendent herself.
  • They worked outside and inside the system. On its own, @BlackinPUSD might not have been noticed — or dismissed as noise. Instead, because of the work of the Okolos along with Black Student Union leaders at Poway schools, it was viewed as a call to action.
  • They’ve stuck with it. And their reach has grown: The sisters have launched a website,, that contains resources for teaching history from a multicultural perspective.

When asked about their personal story — how they got the strength and courage to commit to this work — the Okolos described a home environment in which they could express themselves and feel supported. Their father, who grew up in Nigeria, has been a change-maker himself. He inspired and encouraged the sisters to make a difference in the world, helping them to become the people they are today.

The Okolo sisters are obviously wise beyond their years. They have a lot to teach the rest of us. And we have much to learn. All we have to do is listen.

Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diego-based group working to create solutions to challenging issues, including intolerance and incivility. To learn about NCRC’s programming, visit

The National Conflict Resolution Center will host its 33rd annual Peacemaker Awards on Saturday, May 15, at 7 p.m. For information or to register, visit

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