‘Today we demand that our voices be heard.’ — Trumbull students rally for inclusive curriculum

TRUMBULL — Having learned history in Trumbull, Danielle Rivera said, she can name 20 Spanish conquistadores, the 16th Century Europeans and subjugated and colonized the Americas.

But she struggled to name a single Black artist or entrepreneur that she and her classmates had learned about.

The experiences of non-white students in Trumbull schools was a common theme among the half-dozen speakers at Sunday’s student protest for a more diverse and inclusive curriculum. The event, at the Trumbull Town Hall gazebo, drew about 75 people, mostly students and school staff.

“I was very shocked to hear that many of my peers did not know what the Tulsa massacre and the burning down of Black Wall Street was or who Trayvon Martin was,” said Nheriessa Medwinter, one of the event’s organizers. “If we had the opportunity to have a more diverse and inclusive school system, we could take a stronger initiative not only in Trumbull but the rest of the world.”

The idea that students of color struggle to fit into a predominantly white school district was repeated by the student speakers. Chelsea Morton, the event’s co-organizer, said she had experienced a teacher pulling her hair, another minimizing racist comments made to her in school, and another telling her that Malcolm X was not someone who should be looked up to.

Rivera had similar stories to tell, about learning that someone had written “white power” on a bathroom mirror, and being keenly aware that her physical features were distinctly different from most of her classmates.

“Walking in (to high school) I knew I could never meet the beauty standards of my classmates,” she said.

Even well-intentioned efforts can come up short, Morton said. History classes tend to focus on people of color during Black History Month. And classes that focus on African American figures and experiences are offered as electives, she said.

“If I am required to learn your history, then you should be open to learn mine, not as an elective or supplementary course but as a core part of history, of American History,” Morton said. “For some reason, the school system that I am a part of does not see people like me, like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Lewis Latimer, Langston Hughes, Fanny Lou Hamer, Marcus Garvey or the Tuskegee airmen as essential people of history. It doesn’t see the Rosewood Massacre, the bombing of Tulsa or the Tuskegee experiments as necessary accounts of history.”

The omissions can create implicit bias, she said.

“Not recognizing Black people as an integral part of history demeans their humanity in the present,” Morton said. “This mindset can lead to more deaths like George Floyd, Attiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and countless others.”

Trumbull High teacher Matt Bracksieck acknowledged his own ignorance on the topic. As Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, Bracksieck spent his summer reading about the history and experiences of Black people in the U.S., he said.

“The more I read, it seemed, the less I actually knew,” he said. “I had a real gap in my education.”

Bracksieck called on the students to take a personal stake in their education, and challenged parents and school staff to listen to what the students were saying with an open mind and an open heart.

The Rev. James Morton, second vice president of the Greater Bridgeport NAACP and Chelsea Morton’s grandfather, also challenged parents. While young people were taking the lead on issues like racial equality, their parents needed to be supportive, he said. He was especially critical of parents who had dropped their children off at the protest then drove off.

“If this was a dance recital, every parent of every child would be here,” he said. “Now you’re doing something of critical importance, and you’re not getting proper support.”

But if there weren’t many parents there to listen, Chelsea said she was determined to make sure they heard the message.

“Today we demand equality,” she said. “Today we demand inclusivity. Today we demand that our voices be heard.”