MVRHS delves into issues of racism and inequity

High school staff will engage in cultural responsiveness academy, and expand equity programming for students.

Graysen Kirk, shown here at the Juneteenth March she helped organize, is one MVRHS student who has taken the lead on issues of racism and inequity. - Bowen Fernie

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is looking to further address issues of racism and inequity in the school community by engaging in cultural responsiveness training and expanding equity programming for students.

At an All-Island School Committee (AISC) meeting Thursday, committee chair Robert Lionette said members have been reached out to by the Martin Luther King Action Team of the Nauset Interfaith Association, located on Cape Cod. 

He said the educational task force on the Cape is supporting the antiracism resolution put forth by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC). The resolution was issued in June as a response to “issues of racism, equity, and diversity that have moved to center stage as the result of the events across the country,” according to the MASC website.

At the local level, the discussion by the committee was in part brought on by a Black Lives Matter message placed on the marquee in front of the high school at the beginning of the summer. The sign was taken down as the high school prepared to reopen. 

“When we put the phrase up, my position was that as the leader of the high school, in that moment we had a lot of students who were actively leading movements in the community that we were looking to support,” MVRHS Principal Sara Dingledy said. “The majority of us from a staff perspective really wanted to show compassion and solidarity with members of our community who, as a result of structural racism and violence, feel their lives were undervalued or overlooked.”

Ewell Hopkins said he was proud to bike past the Black Lives Matter sign at the high school, and it gave him “a great deal of joy and a sense of being heard and valued.”

But he wondered why the sign was taken down, and why a policy discussion was not had immediately after the MASC resolution was circulated.

Although he acknowledged the work of the high school, Hopkins told The Times in a later phone call that he believes that lack of discussion surrounding Black Lives Matter sign policy was intentional. He also said the high school missed out on a possible funding opportunity with the MASC antiracism resolution.

“Many of us were expecting an open public discussion around the Black Lives Matter signs at the high school. MASC sent out an urgent lobbying effort saying there are important funding decisions being made right now, and we want to ensure that they are in adherence with antiracism policy, so please contact your state officials and say their funding decisions should be informed by antiracism procedures,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said the former AISC chair acknowledged that she made the decision to suppress the MASC Anti-Racism Resolution outside the committee forum, and he thinks the committee skirted the sign discussion in hopes “the signs would come down quietly.”

“If you want to heal, you must first clean the wound. You must first extract all the pus; don’t just put a bandage on it and hope it will heal,” Hopkins said.

High school mom Patty Favreau said she thinks the homogeneous nature of the AISC could have contributed to any lack of urgency in the discussion of racial issues. “I can’t help but ask myself if maybe the sense of urgency and desperation and fear surrounding topics of race would be more present in the conversation if the committee was a bit more diverse,” she said.

Dingledy said the main reason for taking the message down from the marquee was to transition into back-to-school messaging and information for students and families.“We have talked about putting the sign back up to show continued solidarity, but we are more excited to dive deep into the actual work,” Dingledy said.

Dhakir Warren, director of student affairs at MVRHS, said the presentations given on cultural responsiveness and equity programming during the meeting do not seek to justify the message on the high school marquee.

“Black Lives Matter is a social movement that impacts and addresses the situation of people of color in this country as it relates to police violence and the systemic murder of blacks by law enforcement. I am very proud of the things we are doing at the high school with the support of our principal, who gets it,” Warren said. “If there is an expectation of an apology or any sort of justification for addressing a human rights issue, that is not what you are going to hear tonight.”

Longtime MVRHS adjustment counselor Amy Lilavois said: “I am insightful enough to know that we as a school community have to reflect on all our current practices, and we have to do this through the lens of institutional and structural racism.”

The school’s longest-standing cultural sensitivity program, according to Lilavois, is the race culture retreat, which has been happening for the past 16 years. The two-day retreat brings 50 students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds together to share their life experiences and ways they think the halls of MVRHS could be safer for everyone, Lilavois said.

Another program soon to be launched is a support group, led by Warren, that will allow young men of color to come together in a safe space and share their experiences.

Lilavois said 2008 graduate Luiza Mouzinho, who is a Vineyard Vision Fellow and currently a clinician at the Island Counseling Center, has been facilitating a group for English language learners, focusing on their transition into the U.S. and the Martha’s Vineyard community.

Another MVRHS alumni, Danielle Hopkins, is involved in an internship with Connect to End Violence. Lilavois said Hopkins has created the first women of color support group at MVRHS.

Warren discussed how MVRHS is creating a cultural sensitivity plan for school staff. “We need to move past a discussion of the existence and persistence of inequity and identify institutional changes that need to be made,” Warren said. 

He noted that racism is inherently linked to all other forms of oppression, and with the proper tools to combat racism, the school will be better prepared to deal with other cultural and societal issues.

“When we advance our ability to dismantle racism as a system of oppression, we will be better poised to work at the intersection of racism, patriarchy, capitalism, ableism … and so on,” Warren said. 

Dingledy said she hopes these efforts will translate to the entire Island community. “Our kids are depending on it, and the future of our Island is depending on it too,” she said.

The high school has applied to the Culturally Responsive Practice Leadership (CRPL) Academy — a multiyear program offered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that aims to establish ‘culturally responsive practices and a racial equity lens through pedagogy, policies, structures, and systems,” according to the Department of Education website.