Last December, William Brandes was part of an initiative with faculty members and an assistant superintendent to try and address his fellow Horace Greeley High School students about the issue of racism.
Starting with that effort, Brandes, now a senior and the student government president, wanted to have a more lasting impact on the school.
“In one of my English classes we read the book ‘Heavy’ by Kiese Laymon and that really brought my attention to this issue, and while I didn’t see explicit racism at Greeley, I knew it was something that implicitly was affecting each student and needed to be taught and addressed more thoroughly,” Brandes said.
Since early this year, he and fellow students have been working toward having Greeley designated as a No Place for Hate school, a year-long process to join more than 1,600 schools throughout the United States in a program run by the Anti-Defamation League. It is student-driven and tailored so each school may decide what is important to improve the climate in their community.
Brandes said once they signed on to start the process by providing demographic information about Greeley, a roughly 20-member student council was created to help oversee the effort. Then a student survey needs to be completed followed by three schoolwide events, such as speaker forums addressing various issues related to racism. Given the realities of the pandemic those can be conducted virtually.
All students must also sign a pledge of respect, which reinforces the values outlined in the No Place for Hate mission, Brandes said.
Thus far, the effort has been well-received by the student body.
“I feel that the majority of students are very happy with this work,” Brandes said. “Some students wanted to do other things as well but we’re including this in our work to improve the school climate and educate my peers and myself on racism and bias.”
Principal Andrew Corsilia said he was approached by Brandes about having Greeley participate in the program. Corsilia had been somewhat familiar with No Place for Hate during his time leading Seven Bridges Middle School, and was impressed with the ongoing accountability and flexibility afforded to each school.
After many e-mails between Brandes and the principal, the school was able to commit to the program and start the process. Corsilia wanted to clear the initiative with central administration so it didn’t duplicate other efforts the school and district have been taking.
“It was really Will’s passion and persistence,” Corsilia said. “He was like we’ve got to do this. It was that energy that got this off the ground, and its still going to be the Student Council’s focus and energy and work that brings this around. I said if you guys are willing to do the work, I said that’s great, we’re going to move forward on approving it.”
A key component to having students buy in was to bring aboard a diverse population of students, said Matthew Friedler, the school’s student life director and faculty adviser to the students involved in this effort. Brandes reached out to the Black Student Union, the Alliance for Equality, ENOUGH, which tackles hate and genocide, the Spanish Club and many other groups.
“He has such a diverse group committed to making this work and following through with the work,” Friedler said. “It’s going and it’s student-led, so obviously it’s in good hands.”
Corsilia and Brandes noted that the process began well before the racist TikTok video made by a few of the school’s students surfaced last spring. While a shock and upsetting, it helped to raise the passion and urgency for those involved to have Greely become a No Place for Hate school, Brandes said.
He pointed out that it’s not just upper classmen but there are students involved in each grade, so after this year’s seniors graduate, others will be able to carry on the effort.
He said the process will be completed by April after the school’s three events are held.
“I’m fully confident that they will bring on the same momentum and continue with such a great passion for these issues,” Brandes said.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/