Restorative circle opens door to talk about race

High school gives students a place to discuss challenges
Schenectady High student Jadeana Cognetta-Whitfield, 16, speaks as classmate Victoria Johnston, 17, listens.
Schenectady High student Jadeana Cognetta-Whitfield, 16, speaks as classmate Victoria Johnston, 17, listens.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — Katiyana Wilson, a Schenectady High School sophomore, is comfortable in her skin. But it’s not always been that way.

Ever since kindergarten, she said, she has been teased, bullied and attacked because of the color of her skin. When she won a science fair as a student in Massachusetts, other kids questioned how it was possible she had beat the rest of them. In Schenectady, she said, she has been called the N-word and teased because of her lips and accent.

“I’m black, everyone sees that I’m black,” she said during a group discussion on race Friday morning at the high school. “I have big lips, I have the nose, I have the eyes. Underneath this 18-inch-Brazilian-lace front, I have an Afro.”

When other students called her science fair win into question — “‘How did she win, she’s not like us? How did she win when she’s black?’” — she started to question it too.

“When I heard that, I got kind of confused,” Wilson said. “Are they just letting me win because I am black?”

At one point, she recalled, she went to her mom and asked why her skin was as dark as it was.

“There was this point in time where I was like this isn’t how I was supposed to be,” she said. “I was down, I was depressed, because my skin was being targeted all of the time. … I wanted to hide my skin.”

But she was sharing those stories with her fellow students because now she is comfortable in her skin – at least most of the time, she said. She was sharing those stories because she wants to make a difference, because she wants to show that she isn’t a stereotype.

“I’ve got friends and they have helped me build confidence about my skin,” she said, pointing to some of her friends in the circle with her. “They made me realize I am an African queen, I am more comfortable in my skin.”

Wilson was sharing her story with about 20 other students and a handful of educators sitting in a circle of chairs in an empty room. One by one, they took a red apple paper weight, indicating the speaker of the moment, and shared their answers to a set of questions. This is a restorative circle, and they happen every day at Schenectady High School.

The high school’s engagement team, led by engagement dean Leah Akinleye and engagement supervisor Phil Weinman, has hosted more than twice as many restorative circles this year as all of last year, and there is still another semester of school. So far the team has run more than 170 circles at the school.

The circles can be three students or 30 students. Some of them are only for girls, some of them are only for boys. Some focus on attendance, others are used to ease classroom tensions. They are part of broader efforts to create a positive school culture and settle problems in constructive, rather than punitive, ways.

“Once you have the talking piece it’s for you to speak your truth,” Akinleye said as she started the restorative circle, which was the first of a day full of circles on race that were open to the entire school.

(The restorative circles are confidential spaces, but high school administrators allowed The Gazette to observe a restorative circle Friday, and the students in this article allowed their stories to be shared.)

The students were joined by Akinleye, Weinman and school Principal Diane Wilkinson. Akinleye, who spent 10 years teaching biology in the district, led the discussion around a set of questions: Why is it so hard to talk about race? What does it feel like to be in your skin? One word that would describe this circle?

The circle lasted nearly an hour as students described they ways their race has affected how other people have treated them and how they have thought and felt about themselves. The students also talked about stereotypes and how no one is born hating or judging other people because of their skin color; it’s something that is learned through a culture and media that perpetuates stereotypes.

Wilkinson and Weinman discussed their own biases and how being white limits their perspective. They also talked about how time has taught them more and more the value of listening to students and speaking openly about race and bias.

“The hope I have with your voice, your legacy, it rises me,” Wilkinson told the students.

Spaces to talk about race

Like Wilson, junior Jadeana Cognetta-Whitfield described how what other people thought of her skin color had a deep effect on her on views of herself. But in time she came to understand her skin as a reflection of her unique heritage.

“Growing up biracial, it was always I wasn’t black enough, I wasn’t white enough,” she said. “Growing up I came to realize my skin is made up of all the people who came before me, and I should love them. I love being black; I love being white.”

For the students, the circles are a comfortable place, where even the shape of the circle itself has a role.

“I like how we are able to voice our opinions and respect each other,” said senior Nyre Brown. “There’s no yelling, no screaming, just us speaking about our problems, and social issues that people don’t want to discuss. We are in a circle, we are able to face each other, just like back with Socrates the philosopher, to just share knowledge.”

The circles have sparked students to pursue projects and collaborations throughout the year. Friday’s circle on race reflected a broader effort at the high school to foster more explicit discussions of race and the biases that all staff and students carry with them. A pair of school clubs organized an art show that showcased pieces of art from “underground” student artists and that touched on social justice issues.

The Blue Roses Theater Company this weekend performed a run of Fires in the Mirror, a show that tells the true story of a Brooklyn neighborhood convulsed in violence in 1991 and divided along racial and religious lines.

The artistic forums, like the restorative circles, give students outlets to express their feelings about challenging topics in ways they find more difficult to do in a classroom.

Shatisha Providence, a junior who plays Angela Davis, said the theater allows students to think about race in new and novel ways..

“When you are in a class, certain things are encouraged and certain things are discouraged, because it’s not always a safe place,” Providence said. “When you have a place that is an artistic environment, a place to express yourself, there are basically no limits and you don’t hurt people… you get educated, you expand yourself.”

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