A Trump Presidency: Students Organized Against Racism & the Post-Presidential Forum

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A Trump Presidency: Students Organized Against Racism & the Post-Presidential Forum

Senior Din Seferovic participates in the post-presidential forum held by SOAR.

Senior Din Seferovic participates in the post-presidential forum held by SOAR.

Senior Din Seferovic participates in the post-presidential forum held by SOAR.

Senior Din Seferovic participates in the post-presidential forum held by SOAR.

By Duaa Israr

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“Hope. Unity. Love. Support. Change.”

These were the words that shook the entire Student Commons on Nov. 10 after school, as students from all grades joined together to talk about the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, each and every one of them finding more love and support than they’d ever known in the dangerous political climate that our nation has become after Republican candidate Donald Trump was announced the President of the United States.

Trump’s campaign, from the moment he announced his candidacy, was fueled with hate, sexism, and bigotry. His various comments against Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, members of the LGTBQ+ community, and women has instilled fear all over the nation amongst these minorities. Many of them pleaded the country to vote due to the fact that they felt many of their lives were at risk. For Trump to be announced President of the United States suggests that the majority of people in this country do not care for the minority groups who live here as well. It suggests that any stereotypes against minorities are believed to be true by people we might even call our neighbors. It suggests that nearly half of our country could decide overnight to have no empathy for certain groups of people, drastically changing lives with the press of a button or by filling in a bubble.

To combat the possible issues with the aftermath of this presidential election, Niles West’s Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) club held a post-presidential election forum. The forum, organized by seniors and SOAR leaders Claire Embil and Haley Aicholzer, was a way to provide students the opportunity to debrief and reflect on the results of the election. The forum welcomed everyone, allowing them to voice their fears, hopes, and perspectives regarding the election in a safe and supportive environment.

“In 2014, SOAR held a similar forum after Officer Darren Wilson failed to be indicted on the charges of murdering unarmed black teen Michael Brown. The meeting was a place to for students to get reliable information and cope with the emotions they were feeling,” Embil said. “Tuesday was terrifying and heartbreaking; my friends and I did a lot of crying. I knew that if my friends and I were feeling the pain so deeply, other kids were too, so I went to my SOAR sponsor Ms. Green and requested a safe space meeting with the help of my co-president Haley. Through a collect group of teachers and administrators, I was given the resources to hold a meeting for everyone to be heard.”

The meeting started out with physical welfare director Joaquin Stephenson leading the discussion, informing the large group of students that even though they may experience discomfort, it would be okay. This was a conversation of healing, and everyone would be respected because our stories are important and valued.

“The idea of the forum was to give students a safe space to discuss their opinions about the election. Claire and I felt it was important to allow everyone to voice their opinions and not be criticized for it. We wanted to ensure that everyone felt comfortable and heard, no matter their stance on the election,” Aicholzer said.

Following a few slides about the fact of the election, English teacher Tasha Nemo led the students and faculty members in a circle activity in which everyone raised their hands if they identified with a certain statement that she read out. The statements asked everyone to raise their hands if they identified as Latino/Hispanic, if they are Native American, if they are Muslim and practice the Islamic Faith, or if they are a part of the LGBTQ community.

“Personally, being an African-American woman, I am disgusted at the results of the election but not surprised.  I encountered racism, sexism, and bigotry as a child.  My parents experienced this as well.  I am thankful for the many lessons they taught me about racism and how to deal with it at every stage of my life. I believe this election and its results center around white supremacy and white privilege, and the belief that anyone that isn’t white, male,  heterosexual, christian or catholic is to always be excluded and will be treated as inferior and an ‘other,'” Nemo said. “It’s our responsibility as educators to teach students why this philosophy is unacceptable and intolerable in the nation we live in, and we must give students the tools to articulate their fears and frustrations and stop or interrupt discrimination when they encounter it.”

This continued for a while, and each time, a few hands would go up, sometimes nearly half the room. As Nemo approached the final statements, everyone’s hands went up, and suddenly, there was a flicker of hope in what had felt like dark days. Everyone raised their hands as they proudly stated that they respected women, that they were not bigots, and they were not racists — something many felt that even Trump could not be able to say.

“I disagree with his [Trump’s] policies as well as his comments that are racist and sexist. A few weeks ago when I was on Instagram, I watched a video showing Donald Trump criticizing women. He said things like ‘a person who is flat-chested is really hard to be a ten’ and ‘when you’re a star, you can do anything you want [to women].’ I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth and how disturbing they were,” Aicholzer said. “It made me feel extremely uncomfortable, and I couldn’t believe how he dehumanized women. At first, it made me angry, but that soon turned into sadness. So many women and girls are self-conscious, including me. Hearing that you’re not beautiful enough to anyone, let alone the [future] President of your country, is truly heartbreaking and unfair.”

Following the opening activity was a few discussion questions in smaller, more intimate groups, the first question being “When I think of the Presidential election result, I feel….” The quiet room turned into loud buzzing as students and faculty alike began to tell their group what their initial reactions were after the results. Voices became choked as everyone expressed their feelings freely, many of them fearing for their friends, families, and themselves.

“As a bisexual, black female, this election has shaken me to my very core. I’ve already received threats via social media, and I’m sure there is more pain to come. I am afraid to love who I want. I am afraid to walk alone. I am afraid to be myself. This election has shown me who I can really lean on and trust. It has also shown me who I can’t,” Embil said. “I hope that after these next four years, this nation will realize how desperately we need systemic change in the way we treat our women, people of color, non-Christians (especially Muslims), our disabled citizens, our immigrants, and all of their allies. I pray that this is rock bottom and we can only go up from here.”

Senior Cosette Nowik explained her own fears as a woman in our society and how she felt after the results. Nowik voiced her concerns about her friends and family as well, especially what it’s like to have a family member with a disability and to be mocked for it.

“My personal reaction to the election results were devastation and immediate fear. As a woman, I fear for my reproductive rights and general safety — especially after a huge portion of the population placed a cis white male, who blatantly bragged about sexually assisting women, into office. I fear that I won’t be able to make decisions in regards to my body. He has mocked the disabled, objectified women, shamed members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and has been blatantly racist towards minorities. I am afraid for my brother, who is diagnosed with autism,” Nowik said.

After answering the first question, everybody got into groups of three and the next slide was presented, asking students what the conversations sounded like with our families as the results were announced. Senior Sarahi Rodriguez spoke about knowing undocumented people and voiced their fears, as well as her own on being a sexual assault survivor.

“The sexual assault comments people have been making really terrifies and breaks my heart. I am a survivor of sexual assault, and it takes both males and females a long time to heal from something as horrible as that,” Rodriguez said. “I also know a lot of people are worried as to what’s going to happen to them since they’re not documented. They’ve basically worked here in America their whole lives but they don’t know what’s going to happen now.”

Senior Asma Akram spoke about her family members and the fear that increased amongst them, especially for members who are young and do not fully understand the fear that resonates within the Muslim community for simply practicing their faith.

“As a middle-class Muslim woman, I know that I will have to face more discrimination and struggle as I try to flourish in college and in the future. I know that paying for college will not be easy in a year or two because of possible economic decisions, such as the use of trickle down economics. Along with fearing the soon-to-be choices of our new leaders, I fear the ignorant supporters who believe discrimination is okay for them now because their ruler is in charge,” Akram said. “I am afraid more for my siblings and my five-year-old niece who might face discrimination in school. I am scared for her future. To me, this election sends a message to children, especially young girls, that leadership will be hard to retain in this country because of their demographics.”

As the forum began to draw to a close, students were faced with asking themselves and telling the entire forum if they would challenge any discriminatory practices that took place. Many students spoke about how often, we say yes, but tend to freeze when the situation actually occurs. Despite this, many students spoke about how they are ready to stand for what they believe in and protect their rights at all costs.

“I attended the forum because I was personally very afraid of the outcome of the presidential election. I am afraid for my friends of different ethnicities. I am afraid for my family, composed of immigrants. And I am afraid for all of my friends in the LGBTQIA+ community. Donald Trump’s rhetoric has opened the floodgates for violence across the entire country, and I needed to converse with those who shared the same fear as I did in hopes of formulating a way to persevere,” Nowik said. “I’m going to push the feminist agenda, exercise my right to protest, and educate people every step of the way. As I place myself in the shoes of others, I will implore the other side to do the same. From the moment I wake up, to the moment I fall asleep, I will fight for equality.”

Senior Brittany Kinlow expressed the importance of caring for one another and bringing unity back, even though it may seem impossible right now.

“I was glad that something like that was able to take place because many people were extremely conflicted about what happened in the elections, and fear was instilled in many people. It was amazing that people were able to get together to express how they felt about the matter without being ignored for saying it, and that we all showed togetherness and care for each other. We should do what we can to restore humanity, empower and embrace love, and create unity,” Kinlow said.

As for Niles West, many students felt that even though there may be a divide in the student body about the political candidates, faculty and staff members are always working to be supportive of students and hear their voices. Many students are appreciative of everything administration has done for students in the days after the election.

“I think this election has West very divided. Niles West is a very good example of the Nation as a whole. We are so diverse yet so segregated at the same time, as much of this country is. This presidential race has divided the United States and by extension has divided our school. As Donald Trump makes policies, I think that divide will only grow both in the nation and in our school,” Embil said. “However, at school groups like SOAR, Fem Club, Quran Study, GSA, and more are working tirelessly to bridge that divide and give support to the victimized. The administration has been nothing but supportive and encouraging in our increased fight for justice after this election. I would say that West will do its best. It will be far from perfect, but it will be worth it. My thoughts moving forward are fearful of the years ahead and hopeful for the change that can be made after.”

As a teacher, Nemo believes the forum was a great way to express vulnerability and find students who are facing the same fear she is, all while discovering their allies. It also gave both students and faculty a way to address the divide Niles West may face and how to come together as one.

“I know some of my students are just as disgusted, frustrated, and disappointed as I am.  I know some of my students are happy Trump won. Some of our student body is scared.  Some of our student body thinks that this election has given them the right to  openly discriminate against their peers.  It’s going to take a lot of time and conversation to fix what has been done by the election.  We, as a school and community, need to come together and address the issues of this election, honestly and bravely,” Nemo said. “The forum gave me a safe place to be vulnerable with my emotions without having to speak. The students did all the talking, and I just listened.  The 50 students that were at the forum are now part of another community within Niles West. I have 50 more allies.”

In an effort to continue to establish West as a safe area for conversation and advocacy, Principal Dr. Jason Ness has also invited all students to “spread the word of peace.” Using window paint and chalk, graffiti messages of hope and unity will be around the school in light of recent disrespectful behaviors demonstrated in neighboring areas. Students are encouraged to meet in the south lobby Saturday, Nov. 12 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Other students feel that Niles West has become a safe space for them, something that not many people are provided with. Akram thanks West for giving her opportunities she may not have been able to have in other places and is ready for whatever the future brings.

“I feel safe in Niles West, and I will be very upset to leave this safe haven that has been created. I have been given opportunities by this school that I don’t think I would get at another location, such as having leadership positions. This brings me to another thing: because of our diversity, this school must not divide, we must come together. We should be able to make change happen, and I think this election has intensified this need for change and determination in students,” she said. “Although I see many negative things, I see a spark in some of my peers. Like Mr. Andrew Jeter said, this school needs to remain a safe space like it was the day before the election. I am more than ready to fight for my goals in the future, and I hope that these fears I have will not stop me from making a change and pursuing what I want.”

Rodriguez believes that West can be a safe place for everyone to have their own opinions, as long as they are kind and compassionate to people around them.

“I feel like Niles West is a safe place if we allow everyone to have their own opinion and are open-minded and respectful. I hope that we can all still be caring and kind towards everyone no matter what race they are, disability they have, or what their sexual orientation is,” Rodriguez said.

Despite the results of the election and the emotional impact it has had on many people across the nation, Aicholzer encourages everyone to fight for their beliefs rather than isolating themselves.

“Moving forward, I don’t want people who are upset by the results of the election to lose hope. It’s wrong to continue to separate ourselves based on our party affiliation — after all, we are all Americans,” she said. “Instead, everyone should continue to fight for what they believe in, and for what is right.”