Local High School Students are Standing up for What They Believe In

Amid political change and social unrest, these students are trying to make the world a better place.

India Henderson was popular for all the right reasons. A senior at the prestigious Westtown School, she was student body co-president, a dancer, a mentor, a community volunteer and a high-achieving student. She presented a confident, friendly face to her classmates and was proud of her black girl magic.

But deep down, Henderson suspected that her mostly white classmates saw her as angry, incompetent and undateable. She didn’t blame them personally. They had been raised in a world of white privilege where people of color are tolerated but not accepted.

Westtown School’s India Henderson.

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One day two years ago, Henderson seemed to get solid confirmation that black students at Westtown were separate and unequal. It happened because of one word: all.

Westtown has a community wall, a revered safe space where posters and ephemera representing students’ political and cultural views are openly displayed. A Black Lives Matter poster had been on the wall for less than a day when someone rewrote it to read: All Lives Matter. Seeing that struck Henderson to her core. “I was hurt,” she says. “I realized we had deep problems at Westtown. There was a disconnect in our conversation about race.”

The same thing happened at Lower Merion High School. With permission, a student wrote “Black Lives Matter” on a classroom’s blackboard. Someone erased “Black” and substituted it with “All.” Davon Collins, a rising junior, was shocked. “It was a slap in the face,” he says. “When one group of people is routinely killed by law enforcement and no one cares, then all lives don’t matter. That’s the message we’re getting. It’s hurtful.”

Henderson echoes that statement. “If your house is on fire, you don’t say that all houses matter. Your house matters because it is on fire,” she explains. “We see our brothers and sisters die suddenly, every day. We want to lift them up by telling them that they matter because it looks like they don’t. All lives do matter, but we are specifically talking about black lives.”

For Collins and Henderson, Black Lives Matter is only one component of a much larger issue. In America, whose lives matter? “People who are on the fringes of society, are they part of our country?” Henderson asks. “Do we lift them up and help them? Or do we keep them on the outside because they are minorities?”

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Collins agrees. “Sexism, racism and homophobia affect everyone, not just members of certain groups,” he says. “I don’t have the option to ignore other kinds of prejudice. If I do, that means I accept the hatred in our world. And I don’t.”

Lower Merion High School and Westtown are very different schools. One is public; the other is private. LMHS’ 1,400 student body dwarfs Westtown’s 363. Westtown is sprawled over 600 acres in rural West Chester, while LMHS is in suburban Ardmore. But over the past two years, student activists have mobilized—peacefully yet purposefully—at both. As the adult world was torn apart by political differences and prejudices, some students refused to stand by idly and watch hate consume their schools.

Molly Kaiser took action over the summer of 2016. Now a senior at LMHS, she and her friends saw ominous warning signs of rising hate. “We were concerned about the behaviors one political candidate was fostering and the amount of hate crimes occurring in the U.S.,” Kaiser says. “People seemed to feel empowered to voice racist and sexist things.”

Kaiser was a member of the Girls Leadership Council, a group with chapters at LMHS and Harriton High School. The young women decided to expand their focus to address a variety of issues that had become hot topics. They morphed the council into Students Advocating for Gender Equality, with the mission to promote awareness of social justice issues like gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, race, ethnicity, class, disability, sexism and sexual violence. The advocacy organization is no longer girls only. Young men are an integral part of the group, as masculinity and male allyship make up one of SAGE’s four pillars.

To announce SAGE’s new mission, Kaiser and the group’s other leaders held a general meeting in September 2016. A lot of students attended, attracted by SAGE’s willingness to speak openly about what was going on in the wider world and at their high schools. “We are regarded as progressive, liberal schools,” Kaiser says. “But sometimes students don’t reflect that with their behaviors. It’s not always overt bullying or political incorrectness. But there are a lot of micro-aggressions. We want to address that and talk about ways in which behaviors can hurt other people. We want to give everyone a social justice voice.”

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SAGE followed up that first meeting with a postelection forum in November. It was designated a safe space, open to people of all political affiliations. The goal, Kaiser explains, was to foster communication and process the election results. “A lot of people were scared to talk about politics, especially to their friends,” she says. “It was important to have a place to go and talk about what they are feeling, almost like group therapy.”

Lily Kemler was one of the people who joined SAGE after that forum. Now a rising junior, Kemler wanted to advocate for social causes, but she wasn’t sure how to go about it. “In my friend group, not everyone is into politics,” she says. “I wanted to be surrounded by people who were not necessarily like-minded but wanted to talk about issues and be politically involved.”

Collins also joined SAGE, one of the first young men to do so. He was among the 150 students who participated in SAGE’s April 2017 empowerment conference, sponsored by the LMHS and Harriton chapters. Topics included Black Lives Matter, healthcare reform and preventing sexual assault. People of all political beliefs attended. Collins says the conference was a great experience, equal parts education and discussion.

But Collins was a bit less sanguine about the so-called travel bans that the Trump administration tried to execute. Not only did Collins join protests at Philadelphia International Airport, but he and a friend Xeroxed pro-immigration flyers and plastered them throughout LMHS. Having not been approved by the school’s administration, the posters were promptly removed. “But I think it was students who disagreed with us who took it down,” Collins says. “We are a nation built on immigration. I stand by my actions.”

Meanwhile, Westtown was having its own opinion-sharing, stereotype-busting movement. As the national conversation heated up around Black Lives Matter, students formed Westtown’s Black Student Union. “We wanted a space where we could talk openly, in a safe space, about things that were particular to us,” Henderson explains.

To give white students a similar forum, an all-white anti-racism group was formed. “Being all white and against racism sounds funny,” Henderson concedes, “but it was needed. They could have conversations more freely if they weren’t censoring themselves.”

From those two groups came a student-led conference tackling myths about black people. Jay Scott, a BSU leader, was one of the event’s organizers. Scott, a rising senior, says topics included Black Lives Matter, use of the N-word, and the inherently racist term “black-on-black crime.” “Of course, there is white-on-white crime,” Scott says, “but no one calls it that.”

Scott is no stranger to student activism. Head of Westtown’s Green Coalition, an environmental advocacy group, Scott participated in marches, attended the United Nations assembly on climate change, and helped organize many on-campus events, including No Waste Week, a series of activities that coincided with Earth Day. While the Green Coalition and Black Student Union are important to Scott, no issue hits closer to home than LGBTQ rights.

Scott is transgender and uses the plural pronoun “they” to represent an identity that is not male or female, but falls somewhere on the gender spectrum. Having questioned their gender since age 8, Scott came out after meeting an openly trans boy at Westtown. Sophomore year, Scott cut their hair and started wearing masculine clothes. “I had to stop pretending to be someone who, on the inside, I know I’m not,” Scott says.

Scott told a few friends and let word spread through the school. That was fine, until the bullying started. Scott was targeted, as were the eight other openly trans students at Westtown. They were pushed and shoved, spit on, called fags and worse. Scott attempted to talk about the bullying during one of Westtown’s Quaker-based worship meetings, but people snickered from the minute Scott began speaking. “I knew a lot of this was based on ignorance and people being uncomfortable,” Scott says. “But it made me angry enough to do something to change it.”

Scott’s first action was creating an anonymous online Q&A modeled after Reddit’s Ask Me Anything forums. No question was a wrong question, Scott promised, and the Westtown community responded with a slew of inquiries about everything from anatomy to hormone replacement therapy. The most impactful questions were about the bullying Scott and other trans kids endured at Westtown. “The school is known for being very liberal, so people didn’t really believe the bullying was happening,” Scott says. “When I gave specific examples, people were shocked. They became more willing to listen to me.”

Westtown’s administration also took notice, inviting Scott to speak to the deans about how to stop the bullying. Education was the best route, Scott decided, proposing that Westtown celebrate International Trans Day of Visibility, held every March. Scott also created rainbow ribbon pins and distributed them to classmates and teachers who volunteered to show their support of LGBT students. More than 50 teachers and 20 students wanted pins. “It was fewer students than I thought it’d be, but it’s a start,” Scott says.

Scott made significant progress in getting Westtown to create gender-neutral bathrooms. One had been designated as such, but it was not in the main building. Scott and other trans kids were perpetually late to class, but they didn’t want to risk making other students uncomfortable by using the girls’ or boys’ bathrooms. Having already been bullied, Scott would’ve been an easy target in the boys’ bathroom. After some back and forth with the administration, Scott procured a promise for two gender-neutral bathrooms this fall. “It’s a big win,” Scott says. “But more needs to be done.”

By the start of the 2017-18 school year, Westtown will have eight gender-neutral bathrooms throughout campus. “Creating these spaces at Westtown has been a priority and an in-progress activity for several years,” says Anne Burns, the school’s director of communications and marketing. “More spaces have been added each year since we had a gender neutral student come out in 2012.”

Shouldn’t Scott, Henderson, Collins, Kaiser and Kemler be grateful that they attend tolerant schools? No, they insist. “Sometimes we get so caught up in what we think is our liberal, progressive identity that when it’s time to make changes, people resist,” Scott says. “Often, we’re only doing the minimum required. That isn’t cause for celebration.”

Kaiser feels the same way. “We live in a privileged area, but a lot of students don’t use that privilege in positive, productive ways,” she says. “We can write to elected officials, go to marches, and create spaces where people with different views can share their thoughts and ask questions.”

Wouldn’t it be great if adults did that, too? “It would,” Henderson says with a laugh. “Maybe they’ll learn something from us.”

Editor’s Note:
Following publication of this story, MLT received this statement from Tori Jueds, Westtown’s head of school.

In keeping with our Quaker heritage, Westtown School builds in our students the capacity to seek out and honor that of God in each other—in all others. Our curriculum intentionally engages them in reflection on social justice, equality and respect. Through our Work Program, Action-Based Education and Global Leadership Initiative, students gain awareness of societal inequity and unconscious privilege. Our faculty members pursue robust professional development to support our diverse student body by reducing, identifying and addressing identity bias in the classroom and beyond.

At Westtown, young people are no more insulated from the conflicts that permeate our society than at any other school, nor would we want them to be. Our mission is to inspire and prepare students to be stewards and leaders of a better world. We pursue that mission by our willingness to confront difficult topics. When conflict emerges, Westtown teachers and administrators have a proven record of supporting young people one-on-one and empowering them to engage productively with divergent beliefs through intentional, open dialogues.

Likewise, schools best serve their students not by wishing conflicts away, nor by coming at them with a blunt instrument, but by teaching students to find their way forward through discord and difference. Westtown School does exactly that. Students here neither avoid nor oversimplify conflict; they are taught to see the Light of the divine even in those with whom they disagree. This is our way forward through conflict.

We wholeheartedly believe that progressive education can equip young people with the resilience and knowledge they need to change the world for the better. 

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