A few years ago, a group of Seattle educators, activists and prominent community members noticed more young people investing their time in something that isn’t measured, or often even recognized, in schools.
That something was leadership — specifically, students who demonstrated “exceptional leadership in struggles for social justice, and against racism.”
There were students like Ifrah Abshir, who lobbied the city to give free ORCA transportation cards to low-income students. And Garfield High football player Jelani Howard, who helped lead his team toward a decision to kneel during the national anthem to bring attention to racism and police brutality.
In 2016, the first Black Education Matters Student Activist Awards were given to student leaders like Abshir and Howard for their role in fighting for social justice. Last week, three change-making students received the awards: Mia Dabney, a senior at Cleveland STEM High School; KyRi Miller, a 2021 Garfield High graduate; and Aneesa Roidad, a 2020 Ballard High graduate.
The award and student-recognition program was started with settlement money Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian received after suing the Seattle Police Department and the city of Seattle for getting pepper-sprayed by a Seattle Police officer. The award program, which gives each student honoree $1,000, has since been supported by former Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett and Grammy-award-winning hip-hop performer Macklemore.
In 2017, the program added the “Pennie Bennett Black Education Matters Award,” presented by the NFL star, in honor of his mother, a lifelong educator, which Dabney received this year.
Student recipients have shown over the years that activism exists in many forms.
“The problem with institutional racism isn’t in some far-off state, it’s right here in our own home and that’s why I’m particularly excited to honor these youth that are fighting against that kind of system,” Hagopian said during the virtual award ceremony.
One of Dabney’s biggest achievements was helping to create Seattle Public Schools Board Policy 1250, which passed unanimously this spring. It puts at least three youth representatives on the Seattle School Board starting this fall.
Dabney credits her parents for instilling in her the core values of education and of love.
Whether she’s at school, dance class or cross-country running practice, she said, “I’m a young Black woman, every day of my life.” That experience comes with both challenges and joys, she said.
“I know how to walk into a room and I know my power. Yes, I’m scared and sometimes wondering, what if they don’t listen, what if they don’t understand. Then I go back to my core values,” Dabney said.
Next year, Dabney said she hopes to find adult leaders who are not only willing to meet with and hear students on their level, but to let students lead change at higher levels. She will be Cleveland’s associated student body president this coming school year.
“I want to be a part of the change and in making sure students are feeling uplifted and validated,” she said.
KyRi Miller’s proudest accomplishment in enacting change will brighten the halls of Garfield High for years to come.
With support from Garfield ethnic studies teacher Alekzandr Wray and Hagopian, Miller organized and led a Black Lives Matter at School assembly and mural project. The mural, painted by Garfield students and four local mural artists, extends along the walls to the school’s second-floor balcony, an area where many students of color like to hang out. The mural themes examine the trials of Black history and the jubilation of Black achievement.
“Since he stepped foot on campus, he [Miller] has found himself consistently in a position of leadership,” Wray said.
Miller remembers how another teacher at the school expressed concern about a call-out activity Miller proposed, asking white members of the school community to stand up if they understood what was happening to Black people right now — and then to stay standing if they wanted what was happening to Black people to happen to them.
Miller had hoped to do the call-out during a school assembly, but instead could only do it in one classroom. What could have been a powerful moment was diminished by one teacher who felt uncomfortable, he said.
“Activism to me, it starts with one thing: I am Black before I’m anything,” Miller said. “That, to me, is why it is really important to showcase my Blackness and my excellence. I want to showcase how I am more than just barriers and obstacles.”
Miller, who appeared in numerous school plays and Seattle’s Teen Summer Musical program, will take his passion and talents to the historically Black Dillard University this fall, where he will study film and management. He hopes to combat Black stereotypes in the roles Black people play in film.
Aneesa Roidad held a leadership role in the formation of the Washington NAACP Youth Council, and continues to organize and lead conversations in the Seattle community about educational justice and curriculum change.
She began her high school years in Pennsylvania during the 2016 election. That year she did a history project on the “Little Rock Nine,” the first African American students to desegregate Arkansas’ Central High School in Little Rock.
As a Pakistani American student, she realized the need to show solidarity and support at all intersections where people’s needs are not being met equally.
It wasn’t until she moved to Seattle at the start of her sophomore year that she became involved in the movement to change school curriculum and culture.
“When the youth council first started, we were a small group of students getting situated and trying to figure out what to do with this energy and passion that we had,” Roidad said.
To see students from across the region coming together for the first time and create a list of demands for change, which were presented at a 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Day program, “that was just so powerful.”
This fall, Roidad will head to Harvard University where she plans to pursue educational justice and become more involved in the fight against climate change.
She said she’s taking to heart what Seattle Public Schools teacher Donte Felder said during the awards ceremony, to not become complacent.
“People have to find ways to plug into communities and be supporting the work that youth activists do, and become involved,” she said.