YWCA of Greenwich takes a stand against racism

At the annual Stand Against Racism even,t GHS students, at left, Isaiah Nins and, at right, Mirella Rojas were honored by YWCA Board Chair Aundrea Amine and YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer. —Elaine Ubina

At the annual Stand Against Racism even,t GHS students, at left, Isaiah Nins and, at right, Mirella Rojas were honored by YWCA Board Chair Aundrea Amine and YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer. —Elaine Ubina

Supporting racial justice and eliminating racism are two core goals that the YWCA works toward every day, and it annually marks its year-round efforts on Stand Against Racism Day.

The event is meant to build community awareness of the continuing battle for equal rights. This year, the fifth annual Stand Against Racism Day was held at Town Hall on Friday, April 25. As a part of the national YWCA initiative, more than 3,100 business, schools and organizations throughout the country banded together as participating sites, and Greenwich had a record number of participating sites, with 64 local schools, businesses and organizations involved.

The Town Hall event was an example of the different areas of community taking a stand. Highlight speakers included two Greenwich High School students, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, the First Baptist Church Choir and Commissioner of the Department of Social Services Alan Barry.

YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer kicked off the event, sharing a few remarks about the YWCA’s history in combating racism since its inception in the 1850s.

“It’s not surprising that the YWCA initiated nationwide Stand Against Racism five years ago,” said Ms. Singer. “It’s part of our DNA; eliminating racism is our core. … To this day, and every day forward, the national YWCA and the YWCA of Greenwich remain committed in celebrating diversity, ending bigotry and battling for a nation where racial justice is not just an afterthought in a newspaper headline.”

Ms. Singer said it was children who make racial justice a reality today. Citing the example of the YWCA’s preschoolers, youngsters hailing from more than 19 different countries, she said it was remarkable to see that there was not an “ounce of bigotry in any of them.” She urged the audience to emulate their example.

“No one has taught them to hate, no one has given them a reason to hate. … They laugh together, they smile together, they play together,” Ms. Singer said. “For the sake of racial justice, let’s become kids again, unlearn hate, let’s purge our souls of bigotry, let’s open our minds to diversity, let’s wallow in diversity for our fellow men.”

Two GHS students then took to the podium to share their personal experiences on race and growing up in Greenwich. Junior Mirella Rojas spoke candidly about her family and her academic ambitions. As the child of Mexican immigrants who never finished high school, she was never able to ask her parents for help with schoolwork and had to work hard independently to advance in school.

She counts GHS’s Advanced Via Individual Determination (AVID) program as one of her biggest academic support systems. AVID is a program dedicated to closing the achievement gap by preparing students for college. In Mirella’s words, it’s a “big family where we all support each other.”

Once a struggling student in on-level classes, Mirella is now enrolled in all advanced classes. As part of AVID, she’s attended several college visits, and now aspires to be the first one in her family to go to college.

“I obviously do struggle because it’s hard to keep up with all honors and an AP class, but AVID is always there for me … we work together as a team,” Mirella said.

GHS senior Isaiah Nins discussed his personal challenges with identity and race, transitioning from private school to public school, and struggling to fit in. He wrestled with achieving popularity, forgoing academic success. Moving from Brunswick School to Eastern Middle School while “draped in a sweater vest and khakis, with a vernacular to put Shakespeare to shame,” he said he tried to move in a direction of being more “black” to others, in a quest to be more accepted.

“It’s no secret there’s a lack of certain people in the schools, and it always seems like blacks band together or they’ll be called words like oreo, white boy, fake. … Middle school was probably the most difficult for me, experiencing many new different groups of people I’d never known before,” said Isaiah.

His popularity soared, but his grades slumped. He changed his personality, trading in fancy words for slang, khakis for saggy jeans. His old friends wanted nothing to do with him anymore and his new friends had less than virtuous intentions. One day, he realized that he wasn’t himself anymore, but merely a puppet.

“Not only were the white kids using me to have some connection to the ghetto, but the blacks were using me to get in trouble, and adults could not stand me. … When you’re not yourself, you’re nobody, and that’s who I was,” said Isaiah.

He realized that in trying to appear more black, “oreo or not,”  he had lost himself along the way. He put social pressures and approval on the back burner, focused on school, and “stopped hanging in the wrong places with the wrong people.” It wasn’t worth being popular, trying to fulfill certain racial stereotypes, when it meant trading his authentic self.

“Now I’m happy and I’m me. I became my own person,” Isaiah said. “But this transformation did leave me with some thoughts: Don’t let others direct you to where you should be, because only you can walk your path; you determine your future, they don’t; and when you’re gone, you want to be remembered as someone who made a positive name for yourself, not a follower of others.”

Dr. McKersie then presented two books he believed would resonate with both students. In the first, he presented a book very close to his heart, A Decisive Decade: An Insider’s View of the Chicago Civil Rights Movement During the 1960s, a book written by his father, Robert McKersie. He also shared a short excerpt from Gary Soto’s book of short stories, Baseball in April. He related that both books held important messages about identity and race, and most critically, the personal fight to disrupt social and racial expectations.

He also discussed the growing diversity of the Greenwich school system, stating that “the world is now Greenwich, Greenwich is now the world.” According to Dr. McKersie, roughly 30% of students in the Greenwich public schools are students of color, a significant increase from just a decade ago. In the last few years, the number of low-income students has also doubled.

“We are a diverse district, increasingly,” Dr. McKersie said. “I am incredibly excited as a superintendent that we have that mix, that diversity. I’ll be the first to tell you that in Greenwich, people are adjusting to that. We are still a superb school system. … Some struggle with what that might mean when it’s not the same school system they grew up with or are familiar with, but that is what makes this town right now so special, so necessary.”


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