“I’m mad I have to be an activist, but it’s something I look forward to fighting,” Hele’ine Grewe, a rising Menlo-Atherton High School senior who lives in East Palo Alto, said about criminal justice reform.
Four local high school students and recent graduates spoke on a panel on Generation Z and social justice, moderated by former Stanford University Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising Julie Lythcott-Haims and presented by Embarcadero Media and the nonprofit Youth Community Service.
The panelists included Grewe; Cleo Goodwin, a 2018 Gunn High School graduate; Makayla Miller, a 2020 Palo Alto High School graduate; and Divya Ganesan, a rising senior at Castilleja School. (A fifth panelist, Ayinde Bomar Olukotun, a 2020 Menlo School graduate, was unable to participate due to a personal emergency.) Each of the panelists has led efforts to bring about social change on the Midpeninsula, from organizing Black Lives Matter protests to founding a nonprofit that encourages political discourse among young people.
Each of the Black panelists shared experiences of racism in local schools, from casual racial jokes to teachers using the N-word. Goodwin recalled a classroom lesson on stop-and-frisk at Gunn and the teacher who pointed at her and every student of color who would have been affected by the law.
Feeling ostracized for their skin color on campuses with mostly white students took a personal and academic toll, they said.
“Going to school with a group of people who don’t look like us, who don’t talk like us … it is definitely a lot harder to achieve at the standards of Palo Alto,” Goodwin said. “For a lot of us, we can’t afford the tutors. We can’t afford the prep classes. We can’t afford the fancy ACT/SAT tutors. We’re trying to catch up in this game that Palo Alto has been stuck in.”
Grewe, the daughter of a Black father and Tongan mother, became emotional describing the isolation she felt as the only Black student in an accelerated English class she took at M-A her junior year.
“I was scared a lot of times to ask for help. It felt like everyone tried to ignore me and avoid me,” she said. “It’s hard being an outcast. It’s hard when you’re seen as a Black person in a class and you shouldn’t talk to them because they’re different.”
The young women advocated for incorporating more Black history into curriculum, hiring more teachers of color and providing deeper anti-racism training to educators. Grewe transferred to M-A from Oxford Day Academy, a public charter school in East Palo Alto, where her English teacher was a Black woman rather than a white man.
Ganesan, co-founder of Real Talk, a nonprofit that encourages youth political engagement and discourse, said she’s been starting conversations about race and anti-Blackness in her South Asian community, particularly with her grandparents. She said her activism stemmed from realizing her own privilege — “feeling as if I’ve been living in a bubble and that bubble needs to somehow break” and is fueled by a desire to expose herself to backgrounds and perspectives that are different than hers.
She asked the other panelists what role she and other non-Black young adults should play in combating racism.
“I think it’s important for our non-Black peers to speak up about things because when Black people do it, we’re being the loud, angry Black person,” Miller said.
Lythcott-Haims echoed the same sentiment after a white audience member, a retired Palo Alto Unified principal, asked what he can do as a white man of privilege.
“We need you to step up, be courageous and dare to call stuff out — the jokes, the misinformed opinions, the outright racism,” she said. “White people talking with white people — you are the most likely to influence people like you, so we need you to take it on.”
Lythcott-Haims asked each of the panelists to issue a call to action for the more than 200 people watching the Zoom panel. They urged people to support local nonprofits, both financially and as volunteers, that support young people of color, including Youth United for Community Action in East Palo Alto, One East Palo Alto and the Big Homie Project, which connects local Black youth with Black mentors in their field of interest. They urged them to get civically engaged — to run for school board or participate in school board meetings — and to vote, particularly young people. They also urged support for Black businesses. Ganessan called on others, particularly non-Black people of color, to engage in what might be uncomfortable conversations about race within their own communities and to “come in with intent to listen rather than listen to respond.”
For Goodwin, the seed for activism was planted when she was 9 years old. It was 2009, and she remembered watching protests break out in Oakland after Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man, was killed by a police officer.
“At that moment I knew and I began to understand … this may or may not be me one day,” she said. “I have four older brothers. Seeing a man who looks like my brothers on TV, dying at the hands of people who are supposed to protect us and serve the community — that’s when I started to question a lot of things. That’s when I knew that if I want to live in a world where I feel comfortable, the only thing that I could do is try and change how things are.”