Roles of Engagement is a column concerning the actions and dimensions of allyship, looking at cultural events both locally and nationally. Sultana Khan (@YesAsInGenghis) is a Portland-based writer and can be reached at email@example.com.
Last week, Lewiston students from the 21st Century after school program received word they’d been awarded a $113,000 grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation. The grant is meant to create a new position within their school system aimed at decreasing detentions and other disciplinary measures. The position, tentatively titled as a “restorative practices coordinator,” hopes to foster a school environment that prioritizes learning from mistakes rather than punitive action. (Full disclosure: my current employer, the Maine Youth Action Network, works with the 21st Century program.)
The grant was an exciting moment for the 21st Century group, who spent a year doing youth participatory action research about the climate in their school. With support from their school principal, their program director, and the Superintendent, this small group of very motivated young people has the potential to change the way relationships are built between Lewiston educators and their students.
I’ve been mulling over this nugget of news all weekend. On the surface, it’s hard to see how this $113,000 could make much difference while we’re facing the death of democracy at the hands of a morally bankrupt legislative body. The warring joy of this grant and the absolute despair at the passing of the Senate’s first round of the tax reform bill almost canceled one another out.
But a couple other things happened last week, too. Last Tuesday Evening, the Portland Board of Education unanimously passed a “transgender” policy that was shaped with help from two Deering High School seniors. The policy is one of Maine’s most comprehensive, and requires staff training as well as the use of a student’s preferred name and personal pronoun. (Mary Bonauto, one of three lawyers to argue before the Supreme Court in Obergefell vs. Hodges, the landmark ruling that declared state bans of same-sex marriages to be unconstitutional, is the parent of two Portland high school students and also contributed to the policy.)
And then last Wednesday, the Bangor Daily News published a report that Deering High School had managed to quadruple the number of minority students enrolled in its Advanced Placement classes. The article pointed to some slight changes in the way a “Challenge by Choice” policy was implemented, but also noted that assistant principal Abdullahi Ahmed, a Somali immigrant who was hired two years ago, has been one of the most important aspects of the spike in attendance. As it turns out, when students of color have even one minority teacher, their educational performances improve. But here’s the interesting thing — white students also see academic performances improve when they have at least one teacher who is a person of color.
That is because the power of representation and voice is real. When people feel heard, respected, and valued, and when they see others around them experiencing the same thing, they are more likely to invest time and energy into building relationships with others, especially those who are different. It’s such a simple concept, and yet, there remains a litany of excuses when politicians don’t support progressive policies that would only affect a small portion of the population.
Each of these small, wonderful victories is likely to prove something that is at the very heart of what it means to be an ally — when you lift up the most disenfranchised member of a community, the entire community benefits. It is one of the critical pieces of the work I do, every day, to ensure young people have the opportunity to thrive, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or where they come from. I’m holding these examples of community action close to my heart these days, when it feels as if the national political arena is a cesspool we cannot escape. I encourage you to do the same.