On Tuesday afternoon, a group of students, teachers and administrators gathered around the Essex High School flagpole as members of the school’s diversity club raised the Black Lives Matter flag for the second year in a row. The flag will fly for the rest of the school year to celebrate people of color in the community.
EHS seniors Paolo Mattos-Canedo and Montia Peart presented a proposal on behalf of the diversity club to fly the flag at last week’s Essex Westford board meeting.
“The Black Lives Matter flag is not just a flag or a symbol; when Essex raised that flag, it welcomes and acknowledges every single black life that comes to Essex and passes through this community,” Mattos-Canedo said. “When it flies … it will be acknowledging black excellence and it will be acknowledging the movement of black lives.”
Peart said the flag represents all students and community members of color, to make everyone feel included. Mattos-Canedo added that with such a small percentage of students at EHS identifying as African American, “one can feel isolated.”
The students said they want the flag to fly not only in February for Black History Month, but for the rest of the school year to continue representing people of color and their movement for inclusivity. In addition, they said the diversity club is planning on asking permission from EHS administration to install a display case in the main lobby and putting up posters around the school with information and history about the movement to further educate and inform students.
Chairwoman Martha Heath clarified for student representative to the board Grace Lu that per the board’s guidelines, when student groups want to fly a flag, they must obtain approval from the board every year. The guidelines were created by the board last year
Board member Brendan Kinney asked superintendent Beth Cobb if any topics from last year’s proposal to the board had been incorporated into the school’s curriculum yet. Cobb said none have been added yet, but conversations about furthering equity in the district’s continuous improvement plan have continued and said curriculum updates “could be next.” She added more training for teachers and administration is ongoing.
Board member Kim Gleeson suggested starting student-facilitated conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and related issues in advisory periods.
“We’ve had the opportunity to learn through our co-facilitation around engagements through the last two years,” she said. “Students are very impactful and well-led [and] I think bring a message more powerful maybe than adults.”
EHS counselor and diversity club advisor Andrew Roy agreed with Gleeson, but argued that it is important for adults to take the lead on organizing the conversations and take responsibility for educating students on the issues.
“Anything we can do to strengthen the capacity for social emotional learning for our students would be at a premium at a time with state testing and increased expectations for proficiency-based grading and academic standards,” he said.
Marita Canedo from the Migrant Justice organization agreed the conversations need to be led by teachers and administration, and advocated for more representation of the history of people of color in the school’s curriculum.
“As people of color that are fighting for human rights, coming every year to tell you that we matter…it’s a lot of weight to bring every year,” she said. “It’s really important for us not to be recognized just only a month or asking for recognition every year, it’s important that when we stand for human rights, it’s not temporary, it doesn’t have a date that ends, so we do it forever.”
Henry Harris, chair of the Vermont chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, echoed Canedo’s thoughts, adding board procedures should not stand in the way of students stepping up to fight for a cause they believe in.
“Here are these kids who, against the sort of social odds and positions that are stacked against them, many of which any of us who enjoy white privilege or have white privilege might not understand at all…are showing initiative,” he said. “They’re showing up and asking for something that doesn’t actually take a compromise of any kind from their community, and it should be rewarded as robustly and completely as possible.”
Gleeson said the board should be mindful of those hurdles when they consider the proposal, and explained that when they created the guidelines last year, they had to take into account their responsibilities to state and federal laws regarding the flagpole.
Board member Keeley Schell added there are some things regarding the flagpole that the board could not control, but said she supports additional, more permanent ideas to make sure issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement are addressed and discussed in the schools.
The board unanimously passed the proposal to fly the Black Lives Matter flag for the rest of the school year.
“When that flag flies, it doesn’t say ‘only black lives matter,’ it says ‘black lives matter,’” Mattos-Canedo said. “It acknowledges everyone and it will make EWSD aware and it will make a great community of EWSD.”