Editor's note: (video courtesy of Lena Ginawi.) Last week, a group of students went before the Burlington (VT) School Board to ask that they be allowed to fly the Black Lives Matter flag. The School Board voted to honor their request. At 1 p.m. on Monday Feb. 19, the flag was raised and BHS joined Montpelier High School in this action to raise awareness on the importance of studlents of color.
Here is the statement that was presented, written by: Hawa Adam and Balkisa Omar, both members of Muslim Girls Making Change, Eliza Abedi, Binti Malawia, Eli Pine, & the Burlington High School Social Justice Union, including Alexandra Contreras Montesano, Thabitha Moruthane, Nataleigh Noble, Zanevia Wilcox, Sylvia Glosson and Elizabeth Conville.
The Social Justice Union feels strongly that Burlington High School (BHS) should stand in solidarity with Montpelier High School in the raising of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) flag. People of color makeup 35.4% of the Burlington School District (BSD) and we want to be recognized. Flying the BLM flag not only recognizes students of color, but it also creates a welcoming ethos and helps to bridge Burlington communities together.
Black students make up 14.6% of the district, yet their suspension rate is 30.6% (Equity and Inclusion Data Report, 2016-2017). This disparity is evidence that BSD needs to better support our students of color, and this is an opportunity that would lead the district in the right direction. By flying the flag the district would validate the difficult barriers and the hostility that students of color and their allies experience in the District.
There are common misconceptions of what the BLM movement stands for. It aims to eliminate racial profiling, excessive use of force against people of color, and racial bias in the criminal justice system. In American society, black lives have not been as protected, respected,or valued as white lives, hence the need for such a movement. It’s critical in today’s learning environments that students of color not only feel protected, but promoted as a group that needs added support.
We understand that an action like flying the BLM flag may draw local, state, and/or national attention. We know that Montpelier High School has experienced some backlash, yet the majority of feedback was in the form of overwhelming support. From observing online and through in-person conversations for weeks, we have every reason to believe that the broader community of BHS and Burlington support raising the flag. There is no reason for caution due to the risk of pushback, in fact, there is only reason to stand up and support people of color in our community.
As a state, Vermont has a rich history of supporting civil rights. We were the first state to outlaw slavery and the first to approve gay marriage through legislation. While this makes us proud, we must do more to fight systemic and person-to-person racism. By raising the flag, the district will continue the long tradition of supporting civil rights while also creating momentum for to further our efforts in combating racism.
Flying the BLM flag would be an excellent opportunity to address the notion of Vermont Exceptionalism. Though Vermont is a progressive state, many black Vermonters express that living in Vermont is, in some ways, more difficult than living in the racist South. By being among the whitest states in the country, we have an obligation to further the well-being of our brothers and sisters of color so that their skin color is no longer a predictor of social, economic, academic and health outcomes.
By raising the BLM Flag, we are asking the board to support all of its students. This is an opportunity for the Burlington community to unite to show where our moral compass points: toward progress.
We propose the flag to be flown throughout the rest of the 2017-2018 academic year. We also propose returning to the Board in April to discuss flying this flag annually for the entire month of February after doing an assessment of the consequences that the flag brings.
We have provided the statements of seven students who urge the flag to be flown. We also have included a petition from high school students and staff in support of this action.
The statements are below:“Being a person of color in Vermont I have never truly felt at home here. On a regular day I often find myself dealing with microaggressions and being in uncomfortable situations because of my race. In Vermont we like to say we are liberal and accepting, yet when it comes to race, people say it is too controversial or that they don’t understand it. Some days when I go into school I don’t feel safe or wanted. It is important to understand that people of color are always on guard because they have been taught that they are not welcomed or wanted, not only in Vermont but in our whole society. The amount of backlash that Montpelier High School is receiving for putting up the Black Lives Matter flag is disheartening, and honestly from what I know about Vermont, not surprising. Media is saying that it is controversial, but when you think about it, what is controversial about raising the Black Lives Matter flag during black history month? I feel as though Vermont needs to make much more of an effort to show people of color that they are welcomed and wanted here. I hope moving forward Vermont won’t view appreciating people of color as controversial or unnecessary, but wanted and accepted.” - Thabitha Moruthane
“Black Lives Matter is an immensely powerful and important movement. BLM does not mean that black lives are more important than others. It promotes equality and draws attention to the black community because these are the lives we need to be talking about and supporting now. To hang up All Lives Matter posters on the first day of Black History Month is a blatant sign of disrespect, not only to the students of color at our school, but to the entire black community. These posters seem to disregard the work that has been done and the lives that have been lost for racial equality. As a white person, I'm not able to fully understand the discrimination a black person is exposed to, but this movement is one way for me to show my support for the black community. As the most diverse high school in the state, shouldn't we be setting an example for the others in inclusion and equality? Shouldn't we be celebrating the different races and ethnicities in our school? Shouldn't our first priority be making students feel safe, accepted, and equal? Let's make it happen. If the adults won't, the students will.” - Nataleigh Noble
“Black Lives Matter is a movement, yes, but it stretches further than that. It emphasizes basic human rights and racial equality. The Junior Republican Club was created for republican youth in BHS to voice their opinion and feel they’re welcome. BLM is not an opinionated matter, there is no right or wrong, black lives have always been mistreated in the hands of our institutions, public or private. It is simply a cry for help and recognition. To clarify BLM stands for more than just the deaths of the black community at the hands of police officers, it stands for harassment and abuse of power in general. This “statement” is continuing to degrade a community that has worked, fought and died just to have a month to recognize their accomplishments and lives. It raises a question on safety and understanding amongst the black community of BHS knowing that our very own administration has made it clear that they choose not to defend BLM supporters. I hope this has also brought to attention the many other racially offensive incidents that have been noticeably happening around BHS. This is more than a trend.” - Zanevia Wilcox
“I am in FULL support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I am not using it as a hashtag here because it is much more than that. To me this movement is about bringing a brighter light to the pain, suffering and injustices that black people have undergone for centuries simply because it was decided long ago that they were “less than” because of the color of their skin.” - Sylvia Glosson
“I️ think it is important that every student at BHS feel safe and supported no matter their race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, etc. It is the job of administration to see to that. Putting statistics on walls that imply that people of color are over-victimizing themselves is in no way supportive, appropriate, respectful, or right. I️ say ‘“Know the facts: as of right now, Burlington is in no way proving to be an innovative, equitable, and a collaborative community”’ - Elizabeth Conville
“The Black Lives Matter movement to me represents hope and the chance for equity in our society. The City of Burlington often prides itself in being an open-minded community that is diverse both in nature and opinion. The Black Lives Matter movement exemplifies the fight for equal rights that we have been forced to fight since the start of slavery. All Lives Matter is simply a protest in spite of the protest of black lives matter, only there to function as a reminder of white people's need to be superior in all topics, even the topics of arduous and institutional racism. The BLM movement is important for our school. It is not “one side of a story” it is just a movement for justice that I hope our school seeks.” - Alexandra Contreras Montesano
“Raising the BLM flag at BHS would express solidarity and support for Montpelier High School and our students of color here. February is Black History Month. It is also the shortest month of the year. The fact that we even need a Black History Month is disgraceful, as black history should be celebrated every day of the year. Black history should be taught at the same rate as other history in our school curriculum. Nevertheless, this is a month to celebrate the people who built this country and flying the BLM flag is the least we can do. There will be immense push back and this could garner national press, but that is no excuse to back down. Let's stand our ground and show that Burlington High School is committed to racial justice.” - Eli Pine