Student race summits continue to gain traction in St. Louis region

By Elisa Crouch St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Mar 9, 2016

ST. LOUIS • The high school students gasped when they recognized the man in the photo on the overhead screen. It was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivering a speech 52 years ago in the very room at St. Louis University where they had gathered to discuss racism in their schools.

“This has lived on for so long,” said Nina Miskovic, a junior at Seckman High School in Imperial. “It’s my generation’s responsibility to fix it.”

For most of the day Wednesday, about 350 students from 33 high schools continued work they set out to tackle more than a year ago at the first Gateway2Change summit — addressing segregation, institutionalized racism, privilege and bias in their classrooms and throughout the St. Louis region.

It was the third time they had met this school year. They spoke by Skype with the director of education at the King Center, Vonnetta West, about King’s philosophy of nonviolent protest, and the many ways they could bring about change within and beyond their high schools.

“This is the generation that is in the midst of another civil rights movement,” West told them. Their generation, she added, will determine “what civil and human rights look like across the globe for the next 100 years.”

What started one year ago as a race summit with about 150 students and 14 high schools has grown to a movement that’s more than doubled in size. It includes 350 students from 33 high schools. They’ve formed sibling-school partnerships with one another and in many cases, have spent a day in each other’s schools.

The summits focus on issues that have been part of life in area schools for generations. But events in Ferguson sparked an awareness in students about the way their peers separate themselves by race in the lunch room and at sporting events and assemblies.

Here, uncomfortable conversations are encouraged. So is listening and developing solutions.

“I absolutely am drawn to the work you are doing,” Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven told the group as the morning kicked off. “What you are doing has inspired us in Jefferson City.”

It’s also receiving national attention. Earlier in the winter, several student leaders of Gateway2Change traveled to Rochester, N.Y., where students are working to duplicate the model.

At one point, the group connected with Rochester students by Skype. A representative from Microsoft sat among the students, doing research for a potential app that would serve as a social media tool to help bridge racial divides.

The students and their schools represent a mix of urban, rural and suburban, with students of different races, ethnic groups and economic backgrounds.

At one point, they broke into small groups and reconnected with their sibling schools.

Students from the predominately white Francis Howell North in St. Charles County sat in a circle with students from Confluence Prep Academy, a predominately black charter school in St. Louis, for a brainstorming session.

Last spring, students from Hazelwood East in north St. Louis County hosted students from Seckman High in Jefferson County. They reconnected in the back of the auditorium and discussed their ideas.

“I think Gateway2Change could break barriers,” said Lee Russell, a senior at Hazelwood West High School.

EducationPlus, an umbrella organization that represents school districts across the St. Louis region, is the organizer behind Gateway2Change.

The summits began as a response to the unrest in Ferguson, which left many high school principals uncertain about how to create a productive outlet for students who wanted to discuss race in the classroom.

Students on Wednesday said the summits gave them a forum to learn from other schools and students who are unlike them.

“We’re all leaders in some type of way,” said Israel Lewis, a sophomore at Parkway North High School. “It’s influencing the leaders of tomorrow. We can see the injustices, and we know we could make it different in the future.”