Students unite with neighboring schools to fight racism
Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) at Maine West is less than a year old, yet it is already starting to make its imprint on the Maine West community.
While the group started in January, with the hope of including more student viewpoints in discussions about equity in District 207, “the murder of George Floyd this summer kind of propelled this movement. It fast tracked the group, and we had an explosion of interest this summer,” club sponsor Gwynne Ryan, social science teacher, said. Although Ryan expected the first few years would be spent building interest and leadership within the club, SOAR got off to a much faster start than she expected.
Floyd’s death, as his neck was knelt on for eight minutes by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, and the national protests that followed, were the catalyst for many students to join SOAR, but many students were also driven to action by concerns beyond that. “I joined SOAR because I want to make a difference in our society, and I strongly believe that each and every person’s voice is unique to them and that their voice should be heard,” senior Juhi Soni said. “We as students and kids are the advocates of change. We have so much potential that anything we do can make an influence on other people’s lives and change it so greatly. That’s the reason I joined.”
For other students, SOAR was an opportunity to get involved in a unique way. “I wasn’t very involved freshman year so I thought this would be a good thing. I wanted to take part in more activities that made me part of a community, and I wanted to take action against racism, so this was the perfect opportunity,” sophomore Kris Modi said.
The main focus of SOAR is empowering student voices and expanding education about racism and criminal justice reform. “The mission is to help students develop language to engage in conversations about racism. The goal is that students can use their voice to help people have a better understanding of how racism impacts their individual lives and the lives of students,” Ryan said. “My whole career I’ve been a proponent of student voice. I think when they share their stories, they have the power to present people with an understanding of their world that’s deeper.”
SOAR hosts many student-led discussions during their two zoom meetings every month, both at the school and district level, where students share concerns or problems they face in their community and discuss possible solutions. They meet once each month as a Maine West group and once each month as a district-wide group, and anyone who is interested in attending the next meeting should contact Ms. Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nic Davis, of the Social Science department, and Spanish teacher Nicole Beyer are also leading the group.
“It’s an amazing experience because there are so many different points of view, and people are willing to listen to them. It’s a safe community where you can talk to people and not judge anyone, and it’s students working with students, so we find that connection,” Soni said.
Members of SOAR are advocating, for example, for a more inclusive English curriculum at Maine West. “A lot of the authors of the books we read are white men. We want to have more diversity, and we want people to accept and learn about different cultures. I know students are open to that, and they are willing to learn. It’s not going to happen over night or even this year. It’s going to take a while,” Soni said.
In the coming years, members of SOAR hope to continue to educate the students and faculty of Maine West on racism and how it affects their lives in an effort to create a more welcoming and inclusive community. Along the way they hope to grow in their own lives as well. “Being part of SOAR has made me more of a listener. Although I am a minority, I hear what other people go through,” junior Alexis Delgado said. Even though “I’m not going through the same thing, I can’t tell them certain advice, but I can at least learn to listen more.”
SOAR has taken inspiration from nearby high schools to bring a very unique opportunity to Maine West students. “SOAR first began in Evanston High School through a teacher there. They host a big conference every January,” Ryan said. “There were some students from Evanston High School there who spoke to the adults. At that point I said, ‘Wow this is amazing. I would really love for my students to have an opportunity to develop their voice on issues related to race.’ I brought it to the Maine West administration and asked if we could start something similar.”