Restarting a yearslong tradition, a group of students from districts across Schenectady County last week gathered in small study circles, facing up to the stereotypes that divide them.
The students — dozens from Schenectady, Mohonasen and Niskayuna — from across the county seemed to agree on at least one thing: What other students think of our schools probably isn’t right.
During a lunch break from their sessions at Union College on Thursday, students from the three districts said they had spent the morning talking about serious and difficult issues: race and the deep divides that separate neighboring communities. The students said the conversations had been productive and informative but that more needs to be done to get closer to a common understanding about their differences.
Meralys Collazo, who leads peer mediation sessions at Schenectady High School, helped facilitate Thursday’s student meetings. The first activity asked students to list the stereotypes of students in the other districts. Now discuss.
“This is true. This isn’t true. There is some truth in that. This is where that comes from,” Collazo said of how the conversation unfolded. “They are owning their identities as a school and as individuals within a school.”
A similar program ran for over a dozen years, starting after a spate of racial incidents over a decade ago, said Phil Grigsby, director of Schenectady Inner-City Ministry and a member of the coalition organizing the student meetings, Schenectady County Embraces Diversity. In recent years, students from all seven districts in Schenectady County and Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake have participated.
Funding and organizational challenges resulted in last year’s event not happening, but teachers and others involved worked to bring it back. Grigsby said the group is talking with Capital Region BOCES to facilitate further reach in hopes it expands to the districts that had once participated and beyond to the rest of the region.
“The fact that we can still do these is really important,” said Schenectady teacher Rich Agnello, who has participated in the program since its early days. “Our kids have a lot to say.”
Students and educators both pointed to a Niskayuna and Schenectady varsity girls soccer game in October, in which Schenectady players were targeted with racist comments, as making the student gathering all the more timely.
During the break, as they largely sat with students from their own district, Schenectady students said the stereotypes they have to deal with are more negative and deeply enforced in the broader media than students in suburban districts. When a Schenectady student gets into trouble for drug use or sale, that reinforces a negative attitude people might already have. But even if it doesn’t make the papers or reinforce existing prejudices, students in Niskayuna and Mohonasen are no doubt selling and using drugs, Schenectady senior Sam Goldstein said.
“There are problems at every school district,” Goldstein said. “We own up to it. The issue we are having is other schools putting us down for the same faults they have.”
Peggy Monti, a Schenectady junior, said the misconceptions about Schenectady are strong and unfair to the many students who push themselves in school and participate in all variety of activities — like students everywhere.
“The phrase ‘Schenectady is ghetto,’ it doesn’t dignify or show who we are, or the type of people we are or what we represent,” Monti said.
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She said people from outside the city should think deeper about where Schenectady students come from and what their lives are like.
“If it’s not what you are used to, obviously you are going to judge it,” she said. “That’s why the more privileged schools think we’re ghetto; it’s not their norm.”
What really makes Schenectady High School the school it is? Clubs, sports, activism, students from the school said, the same as any other school.
“People see the bad stuff and allow it. … Oh that’s Schenectady, that’s how it’s always going to be, that’s how it always was,” Schenectady senior Sierra Stevenson said. “They don’t see the good side.”
Mohonasen junior Dasean Brandow, who started in the district last year after moving from Schenectady, said there are problems with racism in the district but that the reality is not as bad as some people might think.
“There is some racism,” he said, adding that the number of white people at Mohonasen was the biggest difference from Schenectady.
Gia Rizzo, a Mohonasen sophomore who grew up in the district, said the stereotypes about her district aren’t all true.
“They think we are all ignorant, rich kids, think we are super preppy and hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Rizzo said, summarizing the Mohonasen stereotype. “It’s definitely not.”
So why might the misconceptions exist?
“Maybe, because they’ve never been there before,” Brandow said.
The goal of the meetings were not to shy away from difficult topics but to dive right into them.
“They are our neighbor, Schenectady is our neighbor, I want kids to really start to look at them as our neighbors — not kids from the ghetto,” said Diane Blinn, a social worker at Mohonasen High School who has brought students to the study circles for years. “I want them to see them as our neighbors and part of our community.”
“We’ve learned to be uncomfortable about being uncomfortable,” said Niskayuna sophomore Cadence Brennan.
Brennan and some of her classmates said people who live in Niskayuna often dismiss the challenges people in Schenectady face because it’s past the edge of their own community but that many others recognize those differences and work to improve the region’s broader communities.
“Students, people in Niskayuna can be dismissive,” Brennan said. “I definitely don’t think everyone in Niskayuna is like that.”
But Schenectady students said students in other districts still need to do more to oppose everything from the small microaggressions of making an assumption because of someone’s race to the use of racist language. Mercedes Castro, a Schenectady senior, said not enough students were coming forward and “saying the things that need to be said.”
“Why aren’t you stepping up to fight the injustices?” Stevenson said.
“No one is challenging their preconceptions,” said Schenectady senior Janiiya Hart, a co-president of the school’s Roots Club, which lifts up the stories of marginalized groups.
“The fact these kids signed up to do it makes me optimistic,” Hart said. “They realize something is wrong; now making change is a whole ‘nother thing.”
In a brief conversation, Matt Grimes, who started this year in the job as Niskayuna’s new equity coordinator, tasked with combating disparate experiences and outcomes for students, lauded the value of the event. But he also alluded to the vast work still to do to make that change.
“There’s some healing to be done,” Grimes said.
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