When hundreds of students gathered at the Black House for a Black Lives Matter protest on November 13, Evanston Township High School students were also on Northwestern’s campus discussing racial issues. They were there for a Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) conference, and according to ETHS history teacher Corey Winchester, (SESP ’10), they were inspired by the NU student protests to initiate their own activism.
“A few weeks ago, a handful of students went to Loyola to see the three co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement speak,” Winchester said. “They organized, went down there, were transformed, came back, and shared that knowledge with their peers. We see this happening, and it’s inspirational.”
Winchester is the staff coordinator for SOAR, which brings hundreds of students from ETHS and other schools across the North Shore to NU’s campus to discuss race and racism in the school systems. The ETHS teacher and NU alum said the students have definitely benefited from the program and that it has produced tangible change within the Evanston community.
“Students are ready to talk about it, students are ready to go there, students are ready to shake things up and change,” Winchester said. “I’ve seen a lot of students just talking about race and deconstructing the systems of power that are holding a lot of them back, and if they are white students, they are talking about how they are impacted by race and racism in ways that even adults aren’t doing.”
And the students certainly are ready to talk about these issues. ETHS students explained that although their school has a very diverse student body, they still feel that not all students are treated equitably both academically and disciplinarily.
ETHS senior Cintha Cadet, who identifies as Black, said that one of her biggest grievances about inequity in the high school is the overrepresentation of Black students in detention.
“A recent study showed that the total number of detentions at ETHS was 595, and out of those 595 students, 438 Black students were there and only 48 whites, and 443 students are low-income students,” Cadet said.
These numbers are extremely disproportionate, as the ETHS student body is 43.7 percent white, 30.2 percent Black, 16.6 percent Hispanic, 4.7 percent Asian, 0.3 percent Native American and 4.3 percent multiracial.
Anna Mondschean, an ETHS junior who identifies as white, agreed that consequences for Black students tended to be harsher.
“If there’s a Black kid walking in the hall, versus me walking in the hall, I would get stopped less often to ask for a pass,” Mondschean said. “It depends on the security guard, but it’s definitely a trend.”
Asha Sawhney, an ETHS alum and Weinberg sophomore, said that the academic achievement gap between white students and students of color was also a result of systemic inequalities in the school system.
“I always noticed if a white kid had parents who were involved and tried most of the time, and flew under the radar, they could easily get all A’s,” Sawhney said. “But students of color were always assumed to be lesser and had to work harder to prove themselves, and AP classes and honors classes had many more white students, and white students seemed to have automatic admission into these classes.”
Winchester, the history teacher, said that in his class he works to foster conversations about identity, and that he sees more students engaged in class and achieving more as a result. However, according to students, not all teachers are as willing to talk about these issues as Winchester.
“When you try to talk about social barriers and social constructs, people tend to close their ears, they don’t want to pay attention,” ETHS senior Denisha John said. “Here [at SOAR] at least people are listening and they want the same thing you want, and they want to learn too.”
Sawhney, the Weinberg sophomore, was a leader in SOAR when she attended ETHS, and she said the program was extremely valuable for her own personal development.
“I had always known that there were these issues at ETHS, but I didn’t have a lot of the vocabulary to describe structural racism, so it was SOAR that first explained that to me,” Sawhney said. “I came to college with this vocabulary and it’s helped me deal with issues on campus as well.”
Sawhney also added that attending ETHS exposed to her to levels of diversity that many of her peers at Northwestern have not, which has allowed to her to have a better understanding of how race, power and privilege play out.
ETHS seniors Gabriela Gomez and Roqayah Mohammed both described the impact SOAR had on their lives after their first conferences, and the ways they used those skills to make real change in their own communities.
“My first SOAR conference was really eye opening for me, and it gave me a new passion,” Gomez said. “I went back home to my mom after my first conference, and I was talking to her about it, and I was educating her about it, and she felt really enlightened, because there were all these things she didn’t think about in her life surrounding race, even as a Black woman. I talked to my dad about it too, and there were a ton of things he never thought about being a first generation American.”
Mohammed said that during her first conference, she participated in an activity with “affinity groups,” where students discuss racial issues with other students who identify the same racially. She said that because she identifies as Middle Eastern, a smaller community at ETHS, her group was only comprised of two people.
“After our first conference, my friends and I got together and decided to start our own club, a South Asian student alliance,” Mohammed said. “I’m not Asian, I’m not white, I’m not Black, and so it inspired me to do that.”
Sawhney also said that her experience at ETHS was particularly difficult due to the small South Asian and Arab community, even though Evanston was very diverse among socioeconomic lines and had large Black and Latino populations.
“It’s hard because growing up I did face a lot of Islamophobia; my dad and brother would get called ‘Bin Laden,’ and my brother got bullied in school,” Sawhney said. “But there wasn’t space to talk about this because we lived in such an ‘open-minded place where none of this stuff happens,’ but clearly these kids were learning to say these things from somewhere.”
Winchester agreed that even with programs like SOAR, the school certainly has more work to be done.
“Yes on paper, we laud diversity,” Winchester said. “But when we get down to the nitty gritty, I think there are some notions that really need to be challenged, and those haven’t been.”
ETHS administrators could not be reached for comment in time for publication.