Voices of our Youth


Silence is not an Option

We support the right of our young people to exist in their communities without fear of harassment, intimidation or being subject to discriminatory treatment. There have been far too many instances in the communities of South Orange and Maplewood when Black youth have been targeted and treated as second-class citizens. It is treatment we will not tolerate. Our children have a right to be treated with dignity and respect, and it’s what we demand from adults and specifically those in positions of legal authority.   

Youth Speak Out for Justice!

Statement of Columbia High School senior Kendi Whitaker at the June 15, 2017 Board of Education meeting on teachers' reaction to the Special Dance Company performance.  

Good evening. My name is Kendi Whitaker. I'm a senior and a member of the Special Dance Company at Columbia High School. I sit before you all today to discuss something that has been covered up, ignored, and denied for far too long simply because of the belief that our town is "woke, stigma free, and according to some people, colorless."

About a month ago, I choreographed a dance titled "Four Score and Seven Years Ago" and performed it in the Special Dance show along side two other dancers. After seeing the performance, white faculty and staff, mostly from the physical education department as well as one black faculty member, who identifies himself as British, felt uncomfortable and afraid. One faculty member even said she was "checking for the exits because she feared for her life."

Instead of carrying themselves like adults and expressing their “concerns” to our dance director Kandice N. Point Du Jour, who is in their department, they all gathered in a room to gossip like middle schoolers in her absence and discuss their opinions which were both ignorant and blatantly racist. Three weeks later, I was graced with the opportunity to talk with two of the teachers. While expressing to me why they felt uncomfortable and had issues with the dance, one said that she felt as though I was disrespecting and generalizing the police force and the FBI. When I choreographed this dance, I was not targeting the police force, the FBI, or the government.

The dance has nothing to do with that. If these people were educated they’d understand that the song "Strange Fruit" is about the history of slavery and lynching. The voice overs that were added to the song spoke on police brutality and the discomfort that black people feel every single day. The only people who should be able to say they felt any type of pain from this piece are black people and that’s because we have to sit and relive and listen to what our ancestors had to go through as well as what our brothers and sisters go through on a daily basis. Unfortunately my heart is unable to ache for these teachers who are complaining about the discomfort they felt for four minutes because they had to simply LISTEN to my history and LISTEN to the pain that their people have inflicted on my people for years because I’m far too busy navigating my blackness everyday because of the skin I was born with.

In the meeting, the same teacher tried to inform me that her Italian grandparents came over on the boat and went through the depression, and because of that she’s able to understand what black people went through and what they go through on a daily basis. Last time I checked, white people are NOT marginalized. They are not targeted day in and day out. They are not shot down and killed everyday by the same people that are supposed to protect them. They are not discriminated against in every way, shape, and form because of the color of their skin. They have not had to wait for more than 400 years for their Constitutional and God given rights.

The list goes on and on, but what I refuse to let go on and on is this. Something has to be done. This can no longer be ignored. These teachers teach your children and my peers every single day. We are supposed to feel safe as soon as we step into the school building but how can we feel safe when the very same teachers that are supposed to educate us, won’t even take time out of their day to educate themselves? If they will not educate themselves, it is the district's responsibility to make sure they get the necessary training to stand in front of children of color, or remove them from doing harm to black children. Fair disciplinary actions, fair grading, fair treatment, the ability to understand, all of these things go out the window because racist thoughts and opinions override it all. Racism, sexism, islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, white supremacy. None of these are “political views”, it’s just hate. There’s no need to hear both sides, but what there is a need for is change.

Thank you. 

Statement of Columbia High School sophomore Hannah Silver at the June 15, 2017 Board of Education meeting on teachers' reaction to the Special Dance Company performance.  

A lot can be said about the South Orange Maplewood School District (SOMSD) by students, teachers, and parents, but how SOMSD has chosen to define itself can be seen by the public mission statement posted on its website (I’ll briefly read):

The mission of the South Orange Maplewood School District is to empower and inspire each student to explore and imagine, to pursue personal passions, and to collectively create a better future by creating a learner-centered environment through multiple pathways; reimagined structures, systems and supports; innovative teaching; partnering with families; and maximizing community expertise and resources.

In short, the goal is to create a supportive environment that allows students to explore their creative interests for the betterment and teaching of the community. And, this is ideally implemented across the district, but can be seen specifically at Columbia, where all of the following programs are made and run by students: beloved plays, resourceful art classes, critically acclaimed literary magazines, renowned a cappella groups, art galleries and student made murals, and my favorite: Special Dance. We students are privileged enough in our school careers to be given opportunities that allow us to pursue passions that aren’t necessarily captured in academic classes. There we flourish and grow as thinkers, we meet students that share similar interests, and we end up producing something in an artistic medium that represents who we are. More importantly, art shares a personal sentiment to inform and be recognized by the public.

An artistic program I mentioned previously that has grown to be like a second home for me and many of my peers is Special Dance. The Special Dance Company is led by our artistic director and mentor Kandice N. Point Du Jour, and this year, we produced a 19-piece, 2 and a half hour show beloved by many within the South Orange-Maplewood community. The show was made to entertain and educate its audience by featuring pieces with underlying themes of sexism, racism, and suicide alongside other captivating numbers. The show has been described as “flawless” and “inspiring” by many, including students from all over the district. We received letters from elementary school students, thanking us after seeing our show. We received praise from fellow CHS students, parents, the administration, and from Board members, including Mrs. Johanna Wright. Our influence is evidently far-reaching and well received, as we received accolades from other high school students written in the form of four page essays.

What few may realize is that there is an excruciatingly large amount of work that goes into the show itself as well as assemblies and normal day classes. We have daily rehearsals and tech lasting till almost 10:00 at night, and we must quickly adjust to the changes and issues that come with live performances. All in all, the dance program brings a wide range of 40+ students together and makes long-lasting connections and friendships as we work to create pieces close to our hearts and share them to uplift our community.

Somehow, within our supposedly welcoming and inclusive community, this freedom has fallen short and students face consequences and are placed in uncomfortable situations due to inappropriate reactions to their art. In the most recent case--though there are multiple examples--the dance performance entitled “Four Score and Seven Years Ago,” choreographed by Kendi Whitaker and performed by Whitaker, Tahjanae Johnson, and Kayla Fleming, caused controversy within the school and in the community, specifically with certain teachers. To give a brief background, the dance, set to Nina Simone’s rendition of Strange Fruit (a song about the lynching of black people within the South) and other audio clips about racism, police brutality, and slavery took the stage with the pre-approval and praise of Ms. Point Du Jour and company members at a schoolwide assembly, and then later at Special Dance performances.

To be frank, the topics covered within the dance were not meant to be comfortable or pleasing to the audience. The dance’s purpose was to bring awareness and share the hardships and fear the black community faces every day. It highlighted a shameful part in America’s history, as well as racist aspects that remain in modern society. It is no one’s place to make “Four Score” about anything other than what the dancers presented. The dance was done in a tasteful, powerful, and captivating manner, which brought light to the faults within our country.

Nobody can accurately deny that lynching didn’t occur; nobody can correctly say racism doesn’t exist, or that black people haven’t faced oppression throughout this country's history. Nobody can rightfully say that slavery, the Three-Fifths Compromise, the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, segregation, mass incarceration, and police brutality did--and do--not serve to dehumanize and belittle black Americans. Nowhere in “Four Score” were members of any race, other than blacks, mentioned. Nowhere in the dance did it say all of the police in the world, or all the members of one race, are racist or intolerant.

Though most understood those facts and praised the dance’s message, the dancers, and the company for being mature enough to take on these serious topics in an artistically sound and incredible way, certain people--teachers at this school who should abide by the mission statement and every rule within the handbook--felt as though they were being targeted, they were suddenly fearful, and decided it was their right to share not only these opinions to fellow teachers but to students. “Four Score” presented an opportunity to discuss the faults with our school and to help understand each other. Some teachers recognized this and felt it was worthy of a class discussion to hear the student body’s opinion and discuss the unfortunate reality of the situation. Others felt that it was simply another situation unnecessarily made about race and the motivation for a potential riot within the Special Dance assembly. Certain teachers expressed that they had reaffirmed the location of the exit signs. For some, this dance was the subject of distasteful Facebook posts, claiming it was the cause of alleged fights and an insult to all police. We know there was talk due to teachers, adults, and students informing us, and yet we were never given a chance to speak, as meetings commenced without a Special Dance representative. It’s obvious there is a misunderstanding.

We knew that this was a sensitive topic, which is the reason this dance had to be performed. We hoped this dance would spread awareness and open discussion to bridge those uninformed or ignorant to the subject. Don’t get me wrong, we understand the legality and regulations of the interactions between teachers and students and all the regurgitated administrative ramble like “We are not at liberty to discuss a personnel matter” or “Students can’t speak to teachers about political matters,” but there's also a lot we don't understand. We don't understand why these teachers are allowed to break these fundamental rules and there was no update or address of the situation. We don't understand why three black students are not allowed to share their artistic statements in a district that is built on the right to do so. And we especially don't understand why our teachers are allowed to disrespect the arts, students, and the school rules. Everyone is entitled to their political opinion, but ask yourself this: when does a teacher’s political opinion become downright racist and affect their work and the work environment of students? When does a conversation finally take place where those teachers who are eager to talk behind students’ backs are allowed to either start a conversation or apologize to those students? When are we entitled to a conversation that does not undergo a five month editing process by administration like the Black Student Union assembly? When do we finally feel that the same district that proclaims messages of diversity, inclusiveness, and progressive ideals is not trying to censor students and sweep all of the impeding issues under the rug? When will all students feel protected and safe? When will the school finally live up to its words and their expectations?

If certain people were offended by a four-minute piece, but never by the injustice black Americans face every day for their entire lives, consider that maybe the problem falls not with the piece, but with them.

Student Voices

South Orange Middle School student Jordan McCray-Robinson speaks of her experiences as a Black girl at the 2017 8th grade graduation ceremony. 

Columbia High School senior (Class of 2017) Kendi Whitaker addresses the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on racist comments made by teachers after the school's Special Dance Company's performance. 

Columbia High School student organizations - Black Student Union, POWER, and Diversity Rocks  - lead a student assembly on race, white privilege and racism.

Columbia High School student organizations - Black Student Union, POWER, and Diversity Rocks - lead a student assembly on race, white privilege and racism. 

Columbia High School student organizations - Black Student Union, POWER, and Diversity Rocks - lead a student assembly on race, white privilege and racism.  

2017 Special Dance Company

"Four Score and Seven Years Ago" choreographed by Columbia High School senior Kendi Whitaker