In the fall of 2020, my 8th-grade daughter was asked to prepare and present a speech for her communication arts course. She spent a lot of time researching and writing in secret. When she was ready, she asked me to listen and critique her work. I listened in stunned silence as she shared the following summarized speech:
“This is an open letter to the people and representatives of Minnesota and the United States of America. The United States of America has never functioned equitably for 13.4% of its population. 13.4% might not seem significant, yet it is 44 million people. For spatial context, 44 million represents more than the entire population of California.
44 million people are put in significant danger just by being alive, and we as Americans are scared to talk about it. Yes, I am talking about Black Americans. Since Jan. 1, 2015, 130 unarmed black people have been fatally shot by police, 11 in the state of Minnesota.
Leadership has failed to educate and provide a platform for youth to understand the depth and severity of police brutality, leaving us empty-handed at the foot of violence. I ask you to compare the stories of white Americans and black ones. Black families make 10 cents to the white dollar. COVID-19 kills Black Americans at a higher rate than the rest of society, and Black women are 2-6 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women due to disadvantages and discrimination in health care.
A white man who shot and injured a California police officer was peacefully arrested, while a Black man named George Floyd with a counterfeit $20 bill was tortured for 8 minutes, 46 seconds and ultimately killed with a knee on his neck. With this speech I cannot address all the systemic racism that prevails in this country, in our schools, and in our daily lives, but I must address this human rights violation. As a 14-year-old Black student in the Rochester community, I am left unacknowledged by the silence on race and racism, and my peers are left uneducated and uninformed of those struggles.
My personal experience with education has been a lack of representation in my teachers and school leadership. Reform needs to happen inside and outside the classroom. The stories of my people remain untold and unaddressed. Inside of the classroom, students need to have platforms and discussions about Black history … true Black History, race and racism, the struggles that their peers’ ancestors faced, and their peers still face.
Being acknowledged and feeling heard is something Black students do not feel, and it is time to change that. I hope that this open letter to the community helps provide insight into the mind of a 14-year-old Black student who wants change. Thank you for listening. “
Although my daughter and I have had numerous conversations about race and social justice, I was moved by her words and her analysis of events both past and present. I was particularly struck by the laces she strung between the experiences of other Black Americans and her own identity and safety. The stories of Black people in America, both past and present, often remain untold. It is in telling and acknowledging these stories that we can understand oppression, struggle and inequity. It is in these stories we acknowledge and affirm resilience, strength and achievements. These stories allow us to understand the need for reform in policy and legislation. Let us tell these stories every day.
Wanjala Carlson is a 14-year-old, 8th-grader at Kellogg Middle School. She enjoys history and speech (shout out to Mr. Kleiman for providing the platform for her to use her voice) and is an avid follower of politics. Wanjala also loves to bake and plans to go to law school.
Chao Mwatela works at Rochester Community and Technical College as a multicultural advisor. She is passionate about equity, particularly in education, and enjoys spending time getting to know her students and advocating for changes that remove barriers for students. Spending time with her outspoken and independent daughter (Wanjala) is her favorite thing to do.
This is one in a series of guest columns written to mark Black History Month.