Montpelier High School is flying a Black Lives Matter flag this month to mark Black History Month and that action has triggered some strong reactions. School administrators say the feedback, both positive and negative, has strengthened their resolve.
When Joelyn Mensah was a sophomore at Montpelier High School, African-American poet Major Jackson came to speak at a school assembly. That day set in motion a series of events that would cause the Montpelier schools to look inward and make systemic changes. And it would lead to Montpelier High School’s flying the Black Lives Matter Flag this month.
But it’s not the words of the acclaimed poet that set those changes in motion. It was a single word uttered by some boys in the audience, and Joelyn Mensah’s reaction.
Montpelier High School Principal Mike McRaith explains, "There were some students sitting behind Joelyn who used the n-word, and she turned around and asked them not to do that. And they said they could say whatever they wanted."
But, McRaith says, Mensah had heard enough.
"And that was really upsetting," he says. "And I think it was a culmination of many different experiences of overt racism and implicit bias that she’s experienced since being in kindergarten here."
With the help of a school social worker, Mensah and her friend Noel Riby-Williams formed a diversity club, which would later come to be called the Racial Justice Alliance. That’s the group that asked the Montpelier Board of School Commissioners to fly the Black Lives Matter flag this month, and the board unanimously approved.
Mensah says, at first, the group wasn’t taken seriously.
"Our peers kind of thought our group was a joke," she says.
But in less than two years, the Racial Justice Alliance has grown in numbers and influence.
"A lot of people have been applauding our work and have wanted to join," says Mensah. "At first it was just me and Noel. Now it’s 21 students, and hopefully next year it will be even more."
That work includes both raising awareness of the problems, and specifically addressing them. Principal McRaith says the school system is doing that by offering staff professional development focusing on race and equity, as well as making specific curriculum changes, such as adding more black authors to the required reading in English classes.
And Montpelier Schools Superintendent Brian Ricca says the work will continue.
"One of the things that, for me, is so important about flying a Black Lives Matter flag in Montpelier Public Schools is that it’s not a singular event," says Ricca. "It’s not the culmination – it is the culmination of a lot of internal dialog – but it’s not the culmination of our work on equity. It’s not the beginning and it’s not the end."
The school received a wave of negative feedback – much of it from far outside Vermont’s borders – when it first announced it intended to fly the Black Lives Matter flag, and again when the flag went up on February first. The criticism came to administrator’s emails and voicemails, and the principal received personal attacks on social media.
But Principal McRaith says all that has been overshadowed by an outpouring of local support.
"The primary experience for us is tremendous support," he says. "Is there some yucky stuff? Yep, there is. Are we surprised? I, I wasn’t. And I’ll just speak for myself on that. Is it jarring? Yes, it is."
And Superintendent Ricca says that jarring feeling gave him a little insight into the experience of Montpelier’s 18 African-American students, including Mensah:
"But to glimpse what the world must be like, at times, for Joelyn – and that’s the jarring part to me, and that’s, that’s the discomfort that I felt which made me recommit."
Mensah will graduate from Montpelier High School this year, along with about half the members of the Racial Justice Alliance. So they’re working to empower the younger members of the group to carry on next year and beyond. I asked Mensah what she’d like to see at her old high school, if she comes back in a decade for a class reunion.
"I would like to see the flag still there," she says. "I would also like to see that students can come to school and just learn, and learn the truth. It’s, I think, as simple as that."
The board of school commissioners has committed to flying the Black Lives Matter flag for the month of February. Superintendent Ricca says the board will discuss whether to extend that timeframe at its meeting later this month.