Feb. 26, 2021 -- “Undeniably impressive.” That’s how Vice President of Cleveland Heights City Council Kahlil Seren described the CH-UH students who participated in his recent online forum about racial justice and Black history.
When the city of Cleveland Heights cancelled its annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration due to the pandemic, Councilperson Seren “thought it was important to make sure we hear young people’s voices on these themes, especially after the year we’ve had. These young people are invested in the struggle.”
Because he wanted the February 20th “Black History Celebration” to be more of a conversation and less of a performance or competition, he gathered a group of community leaders to participate. Cuyahoga County Vice President Cheryl Stephens, CH-UH Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby, CH-UH Board of Education member Beverly Wright, and Pastor Anthony Maddox were joined on a Zoom call by eight District students.
In a conversation that lasted nearly two hours, each of the students shared one thing of significance– a poem, quote, essay or even research – that represented Black history to them. The results were wide-ranging and powerful.
Robbie Caldwell, an 8th grader at Roxboro, opened the event with a moving reading of Maya Angelou’s iconic poem followed by biographical information about Angelou. Robbie described the poem as being “all about self-love and acceptance. … You’re beautiful so don't let others’ negative words impact you.”
Robbie was followed by Heights High senior Taylor Cody’s slide show presentation on voter disenfranchisement of ex-felons as “another form of voter suppression of Black people.” Pastor Maddox thanked Taylor “for raising awareness and reminding us of the people on the margins of our community.”
Monticello 7th grader Chelsea Gipson then defied her age by reading a poem she wrote about police brutality titled “Does It Anger You?” She touched on everything from racial profiling to higher rates of mental illness diagnoses in the Black community and said that the “focus on the Black boys, girls, men and women killed by the police is part of Black history and their stories deserve to be told.”
Roxboro 8th grader Savannah Holland shared a quote from cleric and human rights activist Desmond Tutu about our intertwined humanity: “My humanity is bound up in yours because we can only become human together,” which she said reminded her of the uprisings of this past summer. Councilperson Seren agreed, saying, “Recognizing our shared humanity is critical to coming together and actually solving problems.” And Pastor Maddox, who met Desmond Tutu on a field trip as a student at Heights High, said, “My success is your success and my defeat is your defeat. Very powerful.”
Heights High senior Dasia Love read a poem by Devin Ortiz called that touched on the many iterations of racism that Black people can be subjected to throughout their lives or even their days. Superintendent Kirby said the poem “was a reminder that equity work has to happen in schools, prisons, government, and institutions but also in individuals.”
Freshman Julianna Modlock then shared the words of Bayard Rustin, an activist for both civil rights and gay rights in the 1960s, who she described as “overlooked by history. I can’t fathom how hard that was to have more than one thing going against you.” Thus ensued a conversation about the need for the movement to be inclusive and to recognize the humanity in all people.
Yasmine Smith, a Roxboro 7th grader, read Langston Hughes’ poem which she said meant that “it doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, what your religion is, what your race is, we can all come together.” Superintendent Kirby said the promise of sharing Earth’s bounties “reminds us of the vision of what we’re doing: peace, love, freedom for everyone and access to resources … because access to resources is part of being free.”
The final student presentation almost didn't happen as Cassandra Steele’s audio went out right as it was about to be her turn. After some real-time troubleshooting, the audience was fortunate enough to hear a powerful original piece written by the Heights High junior which began with the words, “My name Cassandra Steele and I AM Black history. I was born to become Black excellence. I am the future and I can make the change.” After listing the countless things that she can do and become and change over the course of her lifetime, she ended with, “I can make a change. I am the future. I was born to become Black excellence. I am Black history. My name is Cassandra Steele.”
The young women, who will be honored at an upcoming School Board Meeting, left the adults duly impressed. Councilperson Stephens said, “You usually take notes on us. But I took notes on all of you,” before going through and naming each student and personally complimenting what they brought to the table with words like inspirational, powerful, courageous, and dynamic. “Some days we worry about the future,” she said of her generation. “But today, each and every one of you helped us see that the future is bright.”
She also showed them an image of the illustrated poster of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” the poem read at Joe Biden’s recent Inauguration, which will be delivered to their homes as a ‘Thank You’ gift.
The students were clearly impressed with one another and used the opportunity to highlight and celebrate one another’s strengths and gifts, complimenting and thanking one another for sharing their art and their passion. Taylor Cody told her peers, “I know most of the time we have educators or influencers who like to bring facts to the table but I feel like it’s such a blessing to have someone with the talent to portray the feelings of what’s going on. … I’m the type of person who can bring facts to the table all day but I am so happy and grateful that I have other individuals who are my age who have the power and the talent to portray how they’re feeling. … Thank you for your poem.”
Such kindness and collaboration was not lost on the adults. Councilperson Seren hopes to conduct future events with district students on a variety of topics. “It’s really valuable and we shouldn't have to wait until things boil over in order to listen.”
Pastor Maddox summed up the overall feeling of the event as he praised the king critically and acting bravely. “We build leaders in the Cleveland Heights School District. … Continue to wear that crown. We need you.”
The video can be watched in its entirety .
The eight featured students were recruited by Roxboro Middle School AVID teacher Lia Radke, Monticello Middle School AVID teacher Andrett Calloway, and Heights High AVID teacher Shawn Washington. Two additional students, juniors Sami McKnight and Joy Harris, prepared pieces but were unable to participate in the live Zoom call. They’ve been invited to submit their selections to Councilperson Seren.