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Rally Calls For Sharper Focus On Black Contributions, History In Public Schools

Dominique Stevenson
Tiffani Jackson
Dominique Stevenson from the Next Gen Initiative and his brother, Thurston Stevenson, lead the crowd Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

A call for change echoed through the streets of Normal on Wednesday night. For parents, students, and teachers, that change should begin in schools.

Demanding an increase of Black education and better representation in curricula overall, the Normal West Black Student Union and Next Gen Initiative gathered for a rally at Martin Luther King Park.

Speaking to a crowd of about 50, Bloomington High School teacher Brandon Thornton said it’s time for local schools to back up their foundational words with action.

“The schools in McLean County have mission statements about preparing our students to be lifelong and global citizens, but they can’t accomplish that if we don’t teach them about the world around them,” said Thornton. “If you’re not in the humanities, you’re probably wondering, ‘What can I do?’ Well since us teachers love acronyms, I want you to re-envision what ‘do’ stands for. Let’s say the ‘D’ means ‘dismantle’ and the ‘O’ means oppression. It’s time to dismantle oppression.”

For recent Normal Community High School graduate Kayla Cobb, that dismantlement begins with the basis of events learned about through history books. 

“We need a required course that tackles the true American story from the viewpoints of those whose stories have been redacted from the history books,” Cobb said. “Their narratives matter just as much, if not more, than the ones we’ve been indoctrinated with since kindergarten when we ignorantly participated in the retelling of a false Thanksgiving story and unconsciously learned the pledge of allegiance alongside our A-B-C’s.”

holding up a BLM sign
Credit Tiffani Jackson / WGLT
The Normal West Black Student Union and Next Gen Initiative gathered for a rally at Martin Luther King Park.

Many across the nation have spoken out against those who are working to get statues of historical figures that were slave owners removed from public places.

One way that communities are grappling with this history is through statues, including those who represent a part of history to be disavowed, or embody once heroic themes that now seem shameful. Next Gen Initiative member Thurston Stevenson said while these changes may be uncomfortable, it’s one of many ways to move forward. 

“People are afraid of history being erased because we’re getting rid of hateful statues and depictions of African Americans, but no one can tell us how we should feel about those statues, how we’re portrayed on TV, and even on a syrup bottle,” he said. “We need to stop being reactive and more proactive. If our history was truly taught we wouldn’t have to worry about erasing it by keeping offensive and hateful things.”

Everything Cobb didn’t learn about Black history in school, her parents made sure to teach her. Her mom, Annette Cobb, said that was important to help her gain confidence in her identity. 

“It makes a dramatic difference, and It’s incredibly important especially at the age my daughter is when you’re out in society and you don’t know yourself,” she said. “It’s important for Black Americans to learn about the things Black people have done to build America. Not just slavery, but all of the good things that every American is benefiting from today.”

Normal West English teacher Ryan Kerr said it’ll take more than diversifying school books to implement change.

“For us teachers it’s being ready to let go of the way things have been done and getting comfortable understanding what people of different backgrounds are saying and how they are saying it,” he said. “Even if you get new books in the curriculum they’re gonna be interpreted through the lens of a white teacher, so I want more young people to take interest in the teaching profession so they can make an impact.” 

Kayla Cobb said using the ongoing 1619 Project developed by The New York Times to re-examine the legacy of slavery in the United States is a step in the right direction. 

Thornton said it’s essential for teachers to get trained in order to teach effectively. 

“I don’t want them to adopt books and lessons for us. I think teachers need to be trained on how to teach these things otherwise it’s gonna end up being an awkward experience for students of color.”

Emphasizing the importance of action, Thornton said the key to the new generations success is to change the narrative. 

“I want kids to be able to look around them and see how Blacks have contributed, but the only narrative they have is what the media presents, which is ‘12 shot in Chicago this weekend,’ so people grow up thinking, ‘That’s what the Blacks are about,’ or ‘There was a shooting in Chicago so did those Black Lives Matter then?’ And it’s those snap judgments that we have to take head on in the classroom.”

Thornton hopes the lessons are organic and will be distributed evenly among all groups. 

“I want kids to unpack the words we use, talk about African American (Vernacular) English, and I want them to know that a lot of the trends on TikTok were influenced by Blacks,” he said. “I envision that every student whether they’re in honors, self contained, sent to alternative, or whatever school they go to in McLean County, that they’re getting almost a college education. It's sad that Black history is a college course that history majors take in their master’s program when it should be something they learn in third grade, sixth grade, ninth grade, and again senior year,” he said.

After marching the streets while chanting, “My voice will make a difference, I will be the difference!” participants ended at the park and formed a united circle. 

Leaders and participants held a Black Lives Matter flag and sang while Next Gen Initiative member Dominique Stevenson left with encouraging words. 

“You have to be willing to put the time and effort in. Continue to come out even if you’re tired and be willing to get up early and stay up late,” he said. “It’s not going to be quick but if we don’t give up and we all blend together—Black, white, and in between—think about how one day we’ll be able to look up and say ‘Wow, look at what we accomplished.’ We have to continue to fight and be the change.”

View this post on Instagram A little musical break at tonight’s rally for more #Black education in public schools, hosted by the Normal West Black Student Union and the Next Gen Initiative. Full story to come at WGLT.org. #BloNo #blacklivesmatter A post shared by WGLT (@wgltnews) on Jul 29, 2020 at 7:22pm PDT

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.
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