Student members of OneBlair (Iyana and Claire, center front). Photos courtesy Sarah Fillman
By Sabrina Holcomb
Last week teacher Kevin Shindel found “It’s okay to be white” fliers posted on the doors of Montgomery Blair High School.
“Of course it’s okay to be white or any other race,” says Shindel. “What’s not okay is to be ignorant on matters of race.”
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School officials believe the fliers, which appeared the same day at schools around the country, were prompted by an online anonymous message forum known for stirring racial and political tensions.
Blair High School in suburban Silver Spring, Maryland, is not alone. A new UCLA study, Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump, reports an outbreak of racial anxiety and friction in high schools across the country, leaving many educators and students stressed and overwhelmed.
Troubled by the pre-election political climate, two of Shindel’s students, Iyanu Bishop, a black senior, and Claire Maske, a white student who graduated this year, started Blair Interracial Dialogues, which morphed into student-led coalition OneBlair.
“Right after the election, I started noticing that some students of color were losing their motivation because many of us felt like we didn’t have a future,” Iyanu confides. “We wanted to give students the tools to work through these feelings and we wanted the whole school to be able to talk about race in a safe and diverse environment. It just got bigger and now we’re here.”
The “here” Iyanu refers to is the 2017 Princeton Prize in Race Relations she and Claire received for their efforts to promote school unity in a time of so much national division.
Shindel, who helped Iyanu and Claire put OneBlair in motion and recommended them for the Prize, was “excited but not surprised” when both students won the prestigious award. “I know the dedication they have and the work they bring to the table.”
The Princeton Prize, which awards winners $1,000 and an all-expenses paid weekend to a national symposium on race at Princeton University, recognizes high school students who have had a significant positive effect on race relations in their schools and communities.
The award is founded on the notion that early encouragement and support for student activists will motivate them to continue this critical work in college and beyond, creating an ever-widening ripple that spreads beyond the scope of their initial projects.
OneBlair certainly fits the bill. In addition to tackling breaking issues—like holding a meeting this week to give students the space to discuss the flier incident—the group holds biweekly dialogues, student forums, and study circles where students examine how issues of race and inequity manifest in their lives and the school community. “It helps get us out of our comfort zones,” explains Iyanu.
On next year’s agenda is an “Artivism” night to showcase students’ social justice art to raise money for the next level of activism—helping OneBlair become a grassroots incubator that funds student ideas for making the school and community more inclusive.
“Going to the Princeton Prize symposium gave us the idea to shape One Blair into something even bigger,” Iyanu explains. “We got to meet with different kids from all over the country. Now we constantly check in with and encourage each other.
“I feel like we’re at the ground floor of a movement,” observes Shindel, who’s equal parts realistic and optimistic about the potential of young people working together to build a more unified nation, particularly in light of Tuesday night’s stunning election wins with an historically diverse field of candidates.
“We haven’t seen a massive cultural change yet, but I think it’s coming.”