Voices of Youth: Calhoun County students gather at Youth Summit to envision a future without racism

Editor's Note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's Voices of Youth Battle Creek program which is supported by the BINDA Foundation, City of Battle Creek, Battle Creek Community Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. To protect the privacy of youth participants, full names and identifying characteristics have not been shared.

BATTLE CREEK, MI — Calhoun County youth often aren’t given a platform where they can vocalize their thoughts and feelings about racial stereotyping and comments with those who are going through what they’re going through.
That all changed on Tuesday for about 70 students from five different high schools in the county who came together at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to have open and honest conversations at a Youth Summit titled “Envisioning a Future Without Racism.” The Summit was sponsored by the Battle Creek Coalition for Truth Racial Healing and Transformation (BCTRHT) as part of its National Day of Racial Healing (NRDH). The Youth Summit is one in a series of “Community Envisioning Conversations: Battle Creek Without Racism” gatherings that began in January and continues this month.
Breakout sessions gave participants smaller safe spaces to talk with each other about what they have personally endured, including a session in which they were asked to share about a time they needed to be heard and understood.
“An experience I had was with my family. We’ve got a Black side and a white side and I ran into an issue on the white side,” says Tanna, a student participant.  “I didn’t feel very loved and accepted by them and I talked to my mom about it and she said ‘I know it’s hard and it’s not fair, but you can’t make people love you and accept you.'”
Carmen, another student in the group, says she and her sister were at a family gathering on her mom’s side of the family which is white. “It was one of those moments when we were being loud and all of these white folks were looking at me.”
She says this appeared to reinforce the stereotype people have about Black people being loud. There have been numerous articles written about this dynamic including one on the un-written rules encyclopedia website which says, “The sound of loud laughter, talking, revelry or music is usually an indication of something fun, friendly and celebratory. However, for Black Americans, being loud in any public context can bring unwanted attention in the form of noise complaints, physical confrontations, and ultimately, racial profiling.”
Poetry was among the tools Alexis used to get her voice heard. She says she was part of the school’s “Students for Equity” group in 10th grade which gave her a platform to give voice to her thoughts. She says doing so got progressively easier.
“I felt like at the beginning people were listening because they felt like they had to until they heard what I was actually saying. It’s hard to grasp things when you don’t grow up like that. You’re trying to understand why you’re not being understood.”
None of this came as a surprise to Khyrinn Herring, who co-facilitated the group with Cristina Diaz, and founded Students for Equity while she was a student at Lakeview High School.
Herring, a 2019 graduate of Lakeview High School, says it was during her time there that Donald Trump was elected to office and “things just went to hell.”
“I feel like we already had racial tensions at the time because it was a majority white school. Everybody was tense and everything felt like this racial moment,” Herring says. “Around my junior year, things were very tense and I decided to share a poem or spoken word about the experience of being Black in America and there was a lot of backlash on the internet.”
She had to stay out of school for one week while police investigated threats made to her on social media. She continued to use her voice.
“I was pushing against a whole system. It was a lot,” Herring says. “In high school, it was very isolating because I felt like I was the only one pushing for change.”
As an adult doing the work of racial healing, she says she learned that what she was saying was not the most revolutionary stuff.
“It took me leaving that school to realize that there are more like-minded people than I thought,” she says. “It took me being an adult to feel understood and heard and to think about how much I share.”
Another student says she really needed to be understood when she moved to Battle Creek from Kalamazoo. She says she didn’t know anybody and so she bottled up her feelings and was very quiet.
She told the group that she has very bad social anxiety and the thing that made her overcome that was taking a more prominent role in an after-school program.

While she says this decision boosted her confidence, as she sat with the group on Tuesday, she says that confidence was waning and she was visibly shaking just sharing her story with them.
Her comments took the conversation in a different direction, one that focused on mental health and what these discussions look like in Black and Hispanic communities.
Cristina Diaz, who was co-facilitating this group with Herring, is Latina and was raised by a single mother, an immigrant from Mexico. Diaz says she grew up feeling different from all of her friends who lived in more traditional households with two parents. She describes herself as being “a very angry child who lashed out at everybody.” 
“It just sucked,” Diaz says. “I felt very alone. I internalized everything.”
At the age of 13, she was diagnosed with depression and says there were three years of her life that she just blocked out. Although she was receiving help with her mental health issues, it wasn’t until she began seeing a Hispanic social worker that she felt understood.
She says Hispanic families don’t talk about emotions or mental health and shared with the youth in the breakout session that they should feel OK about seeking out counseling and not be afraid to talk to people.
“In Hispanic and African American communities you’re told to keep your mental health to yourself,” Herring says. “We all need a place to unpack our feelings. You not healing has affected your descendants.”
Carmen says she’s concerned about generational "curses" in her own family and the trauma they cause. She says she doesn’t want to pass this on to her own kids.
“I’ve got to find a way to not do that,” she says.
“It’s hard to break those curses,” Diaz says, “but you need to seek out help.”
Challenging the stereotypes
From being the token Black person in the room to being the accepted minority to being asked how you as a Black girl can let that white girl play better basketball than you to assuming that you’re an illegal because you’re Hispanic, these are among the stereotypes that youth at the Summit and the adult facilitators run into.
“When you hear these stereotypes all of the time, you start to believe it,” says Boonikka Herring, a TRHT Racial Healing Coordinator and Facilitator and owner of Herring Consulting LLC.

Alexis says she has been criticized by other Black people who have told her “You talk like a white person, you must want to be a white person,” she says. “I don’t understand that.”
Kody, a participant in the Summit, says when comments like this are made you should be asking that person why they think that.
He says he has battled stereotypes he’s experienced with students at his school.
“I’m school of choice, I’ve taken a lot of advanced classes. I have other people in class complaining about the ghetto school of choice kids,” Kody says. “I’m from the Post Addition. I grew up in that neighborhood you all hate so much.”
The moment when words like “them” or “those people” or “why are they here” are voiced, is the time for you to interrupt those saying it to ask what they mean by that, says Elizabeth Garcia BCTRHT Program Director.
“We have taken you through the past and into the present and now you get to envision the future,” Garcia told the youth.

Victoria Ramon-Fox, co-organizer of the Youth Summit and BCTRHT Creative Community Connection Coordinator says she was grateful to see youth from throughout the county coming together with diverse backgrounds and experiences and being able to be vulnerable with each other and connect.

“This is something that’s lacking in the schools,” she says. “These youth want to continue this connecting with students from other schools and communities. They seemed eager to continue this work around racial healing and that was inspiring.”

In planning the Summit, Garcia says organizers were very intentional about inviting youth who wanted to have these conversations and wanted to be in this space. She says some of the schools registered their students while some youth registered themselves. Priority was placed on 11th and 12th-grade students.
“We wanted to have as much representation as possible,” Garcia says. “In Envisioning the Future, we need to have as much representation from the community as possible.”
When asked if there are enough opportunities for youth to gather to have these types of conversations, she said, “How many places bring in as many students from Harper Creek, Marshall, W.K. Kellogg, Lakeview, and Battle Creek Central high schools all in one place when it’s not sports-related?”
She says TRHT would like to build up the youth arm of its coalition.
“Why not provide those tools, opportunities, and resources to youth to go into small spaces that bigger organizations can’t get into? Navigating tough conversations, ultimately it’s how to use the skills that they learn. We’re a coalition and we cannot be a coalition trying to create spaces and envisioning a vision for all of us if we’re not intentional about collecting all voices.”
With this Youth Summit, Garcia says, “We want to give youth space to reflect and turn to hope.”
Kody says he learned about the Summit from a friend and classmate who asked him to join her. He says there should be more opportunities like this for youth. He says there is a reluctance on the part of many people to talk about racism because it’s “uncool and people are afraid of being open because they’re afraid of being attacked.”
It's much easier to perpetuate the stereotypes instead of confronting them, he says.
“I’ve always been the kid who if something gets said by an adult, I’m always the one to question it,” Kody says. “It’s more so with extended family that racism is more of an issue and a controversial subject. It’s important to communicate. A lot of it is thought about but never said. It’s like the elephant in the room.”

For more information about the Battle Creek Coalition for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation, please visit the BCTRHT Facebook Page or sign up for our mailing list. For details about the National Day of Racial Healing, visit the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s National Day of Racial Healing website.
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.