SHS students create space for conversations about race, injustice and policing

Natalie Pierre
State Journal-Register
Springfield High School senior Peyton Webster, center, moderates a discussion about if students feel pressure to be successful because of their race during a meeting of the Minority Vision and Action Club at Springfield High School in Springfield, Ill., Wednesday, September 22, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Peyton Webster has always been exposed to conversations about race relations and policing.

Growing up with a white mom who is a teacher and a Black dad who is in law enforcement, the Springfield High senior’s parents have shared their varied experiences with him.

Webster, 17, is starting similar conversations with his Springfield High peers.  He — along with several classmates — formed the Minority Vision and Action Club at the start of this school year.

After school each Wednesday, upwards of 25 students meet for an hour to talk openly about everything from policing approaches to differing expectations they say society places on them because of their race or culture.

"I've been around a lot of diversity, and I've seen both sides of a lot of arguments that are made regarding racial issues,” said Webster, who is a safety and wide receiver for the Senators football team, a class representative on student council and member of the National Honor Society. “So, I wanted to create a place where those conversations could be had too, because I know not all people are exposed to different perspectives regarding some of the topics we talk about.”

Even though white students represent over half (53.1%) of Springfield High’s student population, 27.2% of the school's students are Black, 10.4% are two or more races, 4.8% are Asian and 4.4% are of Hispanic descent, based on the Illinois State Board of Education’s 2020 report card.

With so many people of different races, backgrounds and cultures represented on the campus, the students formed the club to bring people together and create more empathy and understanding among the student body. Paramount is building on conversations started during last year's protests, racial reckoning and calls for police reform.

"I didn't have an outlet to talk about my problems or to just solve them in the community,” said Alana Arnold, who co-founded the club with Webster. “We started this so people can have that place to talk and then see changes in the community.”

Over the summer, Webster and Arnold began meeting with other student leaders to discuss their vision and outline what they hope to accomplish with their new club. Even though the student organizers are still working to see where their conversations will lead them, they want to get the Springfield community involved.

“Having this conversation and relevant dialog at the school level is welcome and necessary,” Springfield High principal Lisa Leardi said. “I’m proud of Alana and Peyton for initiating the club, including all students and taking the next steps to inspire others.” 

Springfield senior Chloe Byrd explains her position about feeling societal pressure to be involved in respective cultures during a meeting of the Minority Vision and Action Club at Springfield High School in Springfield, Ill., Wednesday, September 22, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Sharing experiences

Senior Chloe Byrd attended mostly white private schools before enrolling at Springfield High as a freshman. Being among other Black students was a new experience. 

“The first year I got here, all I heard was, 'You talk so white,’” said the standout volleyball player, in speaking to her peers during a recent Minority Vision and Action Club meeting. “But Black isn't a language. There's no way to talk Black.

“But, in that way, I feel like I was kind of pressured to speak how other people speak versus speaking formally all the time.”

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Byrd, who is also on the National Honor Society, serves on student council and plays basketball for the Senators, shared her experience during the recent club meeting in which  Webster and Arnold posed a statement to the group about societal pressure to be involved in their respective cultures.

The students responded to five total statements showing whether they agreed, somewhat agreed, disagreed or somewhat disagreed by walking to an area of the room that represented each response.

Once the students were divided by responses, they shared the experiences and thinking that led them to their respective corners of the classroom.

“Being biracial, I feel like society kind of pushes me to choose between being classified as Black or white or mixed,” Webster told the group. “As of the last year or so, I haven't really cared as much about what other people think or what society wants me to be. But, for the majority of my life, that was really hard for me — trying to find my way to fit in.”

Springfield High School senior Ineh Erewele, center, discuses policing practices with her schoolmates during a meeting of the Minority Vision and Action Club at Springfield High School in Springfield, Ill., Wednesday, September 22, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Senior Ineh Erewele, whose family is from Nigeria, said she experienced some family pressure to learn about her culture in the past, but is now empowered by what she knows. 

"As I get older, I'm more appreciative of where I'm from,” said Erewele, who told the group she now puts pressure on herself to learn about her family’s roots, so she can debunk stereotypes. “… You get called names or made fun of because everybody thinks Africa is poor and stuff like that. But now, I own my country and can stand up for my country to show people that we're kind of the same — everybody is human. Everybody has their poor parts of the country.”

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During the hour-long meeting, there were instances where students standing on opposite sides of the classroom were able to find common ground.

“I think it's important for Black people to be able to have different opinions on social structures and still be accepted for it,” Byrd said. “A lot of people had opinions I did not agree with. But it was nice to see us not just scream at each other and act the way that a lot of people do on social media.”

Advancing the conversation

One student told the group about having a police officer point a gun at her — in the midst of chasing after someone else — while she was standing at a bus stop with her backpack on and her schoolbooks in her hands.

As the group opened up a conversation about policing practices, several other Black students shared positive interactions they had with law enforcement during traffic stops. 

Throughout the discussion, the students referenced history to explain their views on policing and how some of them, as Black people, feel targeted by law enforcement. 

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"I feel like it starts where the police system originally started,” Byrd told her peers. “I don't think if a cop sees me they're going to think 'Oh, she's Black, is she committing a crime?’ But overall, I think the police system looks more towards us versus other ethnicities."

In explaining her view, Byrd referenced early policing practices following the disbandment of slave patrols in 1865. The patrols policed the movements of Black people to ensure the white population maintained control.

Other students referenced the 1994 Crime Bill — which further exacerbated racial disparities in policing and mass incarceration — in expressing their desire to see policing systems change. 

"As a white person, I obviously don't know what it's like to go through life as a minority," senior Aileen Mannion said. "So, I think it's really important to educate yourself and not be afraid to show up to things like this so that you can do better.” 

As co-founders of the group, Webster and Arnold said they appreciate their classmates being so willing to share their experiences and viewpoints while also listening and being respectful of each other.

"Sometimes I forget that not everybody has a space at home or within their friend group to talk about these things," said Webster, who aspires to go to law school and become a lawyer. "So, it's just been cool to see people's willingness and excitement about speaking out on some of these issues as a club.”

As the group continues to meet each Wednesday, it looks to build on the constructive conversations it has already started having about race, policing and injustice.

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“Reaching out to the community is our next big step,” Arnold said. “I think we can make a lot of progress within this club. We want to reach out to little kids, older mentors and other people like that. We just want to bring everyone in the community together to improve things.” 

Contact Natalie Pierre at npierre@gannett.com or on Twitter @NataliePierre_.