Sharing cultural differences in safe spaces

Grace Middleton

Grace Middleton was in 7th grade at Wright Middle School when her older brother took her to a rally to protest the shooting of Tony Robinson, an unarmed teen killed by a Madison police officer. She’d been to protest rallies before, but this was different. This was about her people—black and brown people. She knew that this incident could have been her brother, or her high- energy younger cousin who she worries could end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

“To see all of these students saying ‘no this is not okay, this should not be happening here or anywhere else,’ and to see my brother deal with the struggles of being a black man in America, and what that really means was eye opening for me,” says Grace. “That’s what sparked in me to want to inform people about things.” 

That rally back in 2015 transformed Grace into a social justice activist. 
Now 17, Grace is a junior who divides her school days between Shabazz and West High Schools, where she feels the former allows her academic flexibility and the ability to have a voice, as where the latter places her in her comfort zone—with other black and brown students. 

At Shabazz, in her sophomore year, her leadership teacher, Aaron Kaio, proposed that the students develop curriculum for classes for the upcoming 2018-19 school year. And then lead them. Some students proposed classes dealing with health and sexual assault, but Grace saw an opportunity and spoke up. 

“I thought there should be a different class that talks about black people,” says Grace. “Especially about sexual assault because I feel black women are less likely to report that. I wanted a class that brought something I hadn’t seen before in school and Aaron was totally supportive of that. “

Under the purview of Mr. Kaio, Grace developed a four-part curriculum dealing with topics she feels white students experience differently than students of color, and wanted this class to be a safe space for students of all colors to share and learn. The topics covered communities, policing, beauty standards and art. 

“We lost our only teacher of color to retirement, and Grace took up the challenge of trying to fill some of the gap,” says Mr. Kaio. “So this year, Grace and I had an independent study where she built the curriculum. We would check in every other day or so and have really rich conversations about race. I treasured those conversations, and because we would have them in the office, we often drew in multiple people. Really, Grace was educating people right there.”

For the topic of communities, the class discussed demographics in neighborhoods that label a territory as “bad” or “good,” exposing the bias that bad neighborhoods are often populated with black residents. Policing drew on the negative relationship police officers have with people of color while drawing attention to fears of police brutality that white youth rarely experience.

“Policing is an important topic for me because the relationship between police and the black community historically is so terrible,” says Grace. “Like police shootings of unarmed black people, black men especially because I have many black men in my life.” 

The discussion around beauty focused on the cultural significance of braiding. Grace showed videos of how white celebrities—Bo Derek with cornrows and the Kardashians with “box braids” —have appropriated the styles, and because of that, white people now claim cultural ownership. 

“I had a student in this class who had never heard the term cornrows before. That was a moment when I was like, white people call them boxer braids, crazy to have someone who’s never heard the term cornrows. That’s why I wanted to do this class,” says Grace. “I wanted people to see differences like that. But it wasn’t about making anyone feel bad because they didn’t know that, but for them to know that I think about these things a lot, or that they are on my friends’ minds a lot. It was about the little things within the topics—now you know cornrows. This is why we need these classes.” 

Spoken word, which Grace chose for the class’s “art” topic, drove what she described as the most vibrant discussion because she was able to incorporate all of the topics into this one theme.

It seems like we don’t talk about spoken word when we talk about poetry in school,” says Grace. “It seems to be a big outlet for any topic for black people to be able to be angry and not be seen as angry,” says Grace. “I’ve been a fan of it forever, I have a lot of spoken words that I think other people should see. So we would show one and then take the whole hour to talk about it.” 

Among the most compelling in her spoken word collection is a video called “Because He’s Black,” in which it illustrates how black boys are taught to hide from the police before they even learn to read. “All the discussions went really well I think because there’s so many parts in spoken word, and it’s more relatable than to read a poem.” 

To advance her mission of giving voice to the often unheard students of color now that the class has ended, Grace will continue to work with groups like the African American Youth Council, Superintendent Advisory Board and the Youth Voice Group. 

“I really want to make elementary students feel good and encouraged like they can do their best and that they won’t have to fight the same fights I did, and that MMSD will be better for black and brown students.” 

Mr. Kaio added that Grace is so knowledgeable about race that he sometimes hesitates to ask her opinion on issues of race because he goes to her so often for another point of view. Still, he says, when he does, she steps up to the plate and often asks him questions back that help check his privilege. 

“Its was also just wonderful working with Grace,” says Mr. Kaio. “She is so knowledgeable about race and has the energy to educate her classmates and teachers. In addition, I got to work with Grace on a series of circle discussions that we did around race and how to create a welcoming community at Shabazz for students of color. She shone there as well, bringing up a lot of good points about how the teachers could open up more communication with students of color to bring their voices into how we do things at Shabazz.”  

- Pat Dillon