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Race at BC High: Turning conversation into action

Nick Fahy '18, Managing Editor

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Just outside the Commons and across from Bulger Theater, two offices are separated by a thin wall. Were the wall removed, the desks of Director of Equity and Inclusion Ms. Ruth Evee and Vice Principal for Curriculum and Development Ms. Kimberly Smith would face each other directly. Both approach BC High’s discussion of race as their desks approach the wall, from complementary angles: Ms. Evee is responsible for listening to and articulating the students’ concerns and interests, while Ms. Smith was in large part responsible for executing the administration’s vision of a conversation about race this year. Any discussion of race at BC High going forward will have to be led not just by students, but by a continued effort from this axis: the two offices of the Vice Principal and the Director of Equity and Inclusion.

Ms. Evee is confident in administrators’ approach to race, particularly after the walkout. “Their approach has been heartfelt, and they want to make this school more inclusive for everyone,” she said. She praised the work of the Diversity Cabinet, of which she serves as moderator, in creating change. “They’re my sounding board. They’re going to be the eyes and ears; they’re learning how to address these issues. They’re working on them now… They’re full of ideas.”

Indeed they are. On May 31, Jamil Davis ’19 invited Boston police officers to give a lesson for the Diversity Cabinet members about how to react and what the protocol is for when and if they get pulled over. This lesson was particularly relevant given the disturbing trend of disproportionately high numbers of young men, particularly young African-American men, getting pulled over driving for suspect motives across the country.

One positive development to come out of the walkout, says Ms. Evee, is that more students feel comfortable coming forward to talk to her about the racism they experience at the school. “I’m getting more students who are willing to talk… The walkout gave them confidence; it’s been a domino effect,” she says.

Another is a renewed commitment to representing the African-American experience, and the experiences of other cultures, within the English curriculum. Two new additions to the summer reading list, Lose Your Mother and The Underground Railroad, by Saidiya Hartman and Colson Whitehead respectively, will join Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as summer reading by African-American authors. Though this series has focused specifically on the experience of black students at BC High specifically, six books on this year’s summer reading list will be by women authors, in addition to one book already on this list by Benjamin Alire Saenz, a gay Mexican author, will give summer reading a more multicultural base of experiences to draw from than in years past.

All freshmen go through a full-day orientation at the start of their BC High career before classes convene in September designed to adjust them to life at BC High. As part of that day, they go through workshops about basic elements of procedure and finding their way around school. Before he graduated, Jason Lopes ’17 had another recommendation for freshman orientation: to “have workshops about kindness and treating people like human beings.”

“Even if you might not like somebody you’ve got to look out for each other,” agrees Josiah Texeira ’18. He notes that this sense of solidarity is critical among members of the BLSU, many of whom face similar challenges of discomfort of varying degrees based on race.

Vice Principal for Student Affairs Mr. Hollis Brooks expressed optimism that after the ‘Year of Race’ had concluded, progress would continue. “I’m confident that this wasn’t a one-off,” he says, “I feel like we’re in a spot where we can make some great change here.” Fundamentally, he also believes in the benevolence of the institution he represents. “I don’t think we have a racist subculture,” he says.

Near the end of the school year, Ms. Smith surveyed anonymous students from the high school and middle school divisions of the school about how the school had handled race. Many underclassmen featured in Ms. Smith’s presentation expressed optimism about the direction of the conversation. “I personally notice growth and maturity from my peers,” said an underclassman, “The talks are helpful,” said another. A third underclassman enjoined the school, “Do NOT make this a one-year thing.” One noted that the walkout, while unplanned, was his favorite aspect of the yearlong study.

Arrupe students surveyed tended to be heavier on questions. One asked, in the face of everything they had learned this year, what they could do to make a difference. Another asked how racism manifests itself in other parts of the world. Still another asked what he might do to respond to someone who makes racist comments. For the sake of the school culture, the faculty owes these youngest students answers.

Perhaps what might make the most difference towards improving BC High’s culture is precisely what worked this year on April 12. On that day, six students had the courage and conviction to look their peers in the eye and speak honestly, candidly, and bravely about their experiences as African-American students at the school. Hundreds of students and faculty spent a full period listening to their experiences, and the points they made traveled well beyond Bulger Auditorium. There is strength in unity.

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Race at BC High: Turning conversation into action