China Virus. Chinese Virus. Kung Flu. Have you heard of these phrases, or should I say, slurs? I have. I’ve heard these slurs from either social media or my very own classmates. These racial slurs have consequences. Words Matter. - Elsa Xiong, Sennett Middle School
For Elsa Xiong, an eighth grader at Sennett Middle School, speech has given her a platform to speak out against anti-Asian racism and rhetoric brought on during the coronavirus pandemic in the last year.
Elsa delivered a dynamic speech on Asian American racism to hundreds of her MMSD peers, school educators and staff and Madison community leaders during the virtual Project Soapbox Citywide event this past March, an annual spoken word showcase where students from middle and high schools across the district come together for to speak up about issues that matter to them and impact the lives of their families.
When Elsa’s teacher at Sennett, Anna Oriedo, encouraged her to participate in this year’s virtual Soapbox event, Elsa was nervous. She did not have experience in public speaking, but was up for a new challenge. Elsa explained her true motivation for speaking up about violence against Asian Americans came after a personal experience with being made fun of at school last March about having coronavirus.
“I felt broken when a friend of mine teased me about having coronavirus,” said Elsa. My friends and I were all singled out and I couldn’t understand how this person could treat me this way. This is someone I’ve known for years. I felt sad and uncomfortable and really didn't know if I could trust this person again after they targeted me and my friends.”
In its fourth year at MMSD, Project Soapbox is typically hosted in-person at the city’s Overture Center in downtown Madison so that students can invite their family and friends to watch them deliver their speeches on stage. This year the celebration of student voices was virtual due to large gatherings being banned and venues being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Project Soapbox came at a critical time this year, as many students spoke on topics dealing with today’s social and political climate, including racial unrest across the country, mental health amid a global pandemic and adjusting to a new all-virtual learning environment.
Over four weeks, teachers took time to introduce students to public speaking, teaching them how to pick a topic for a speech, the research required to identify why a specific topic is an issue and the importance of concluding the speech with a call to action for human rights and civil engagement.
Ths district celebrated students in March with a virtual summit for 75 finalists who submitted a video recording of their original speeches for fellow students to listen to, share their feedback and provide positive affirmation while community judges including Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Senator Melissa Agard among others chose 10 finalists to recite their speeches in a live grand finale via Zoom.
Elsa was one of the 10 finalists selected by the judges to recite her speech live finale.
“There were so many amazing speakers at Soapbox,” said Elsa. “I loved all the topics, the speakers’ use of metaphors and the speeches about social justice like Black Lives Matter. All the hate in the world is so unnecessary and it feels good to see so many young people supporting the movements to stop hate and injustice.”
Elsa’s parents and her five siblings were extremely supportive of the topic she chose for her speech and impressed by the courage it took to discuss racism on a large-scale platform like Project Soapbox in front of a diverse audience of students, school staff and community.
Adjusting to virtual learning during the pandemic was challenging for Elsa. While she misses laughing with her friends and hanging out with them in person, she believes she’s been able to stay more focused while learning from home.
"Covid may have slowed down my social life, but I’ve been enjoying all the time I’ve been spending with my mom and dad, my siblings and my grandparents,” said Elsa. “English is my favorite subject in school and during virtual learning I’ve been able to really concentrate on communicating better in writing.”
Outside of school, Elsa likes playing video games with her sisters, ages 19 and 16. They often have girls’ nights where they share stories about family and friends and discuss important events that are going on in the world around them. Elsa loves getting advice from them and considers all of her older siblings role models.
When it comes to public speaking, Elsa has some advice for her fellow students.
“Support from your family always helps, but make sure you speak out for yourself and not for anyone else,” said Elsa. “You’ll feel when the time is right, just don’t force yourself because there will always be opportunities for you to speak your mind.”
- Marlita Bevenue, MMSD Communciations: email@example.com