The Restorative Justice and Student Coalition addresses anti Asian hate with student circles

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Photo by Jeremy Fredricks

During the study circle, stereotypes of anti-Asian-American were dicussed. The RJSC led the study circle over two days — May 4 and May 5.

By Jeremy Fredricks, Editor-in-Chief

Following recent acts of violence against Asian-Americans, the Restorative Justice Student Coalition (RJSC) knew they had to act. They decided to hold a study circle, their second this year in advisory, to discuss the issue. And, they were more than happy to include input from the Asian-American Alliance club (AAA) and the WCHS Ambassadors for their circle.

They held a mini circle in advisory on May 4 for upperclassmen, followed by an optional six-hour study circle over the course of two days — May 4 and May 5. Their main goal: stopping the 169 percent increase in violence against Asian-Americans over the last year.

The RJSC approached school administration about an anti-Asian racism Study Circle because we wanted to create a space where students could discuss current events,” junior Queen Balina, an RJSC officer, said. “When the Asian American Alliance contacted us with a similar idea, we were thrilled to have support in collecting student testimony, compiling important statistics, and creating an extensive timeline of violence and discrimination against Asian Americans.”

The circles included the history of violence against Asian-Americans, negative stereotypes and the personal experiences of Asian-American WCHS students and staff. Junior Mariam Coulibaly decided to attend the circle to learn more about the issues affecting Asian-Americans.

“I wanted to go to the study circle because I wanted to hear more from the Asian community about how they feel and what they think should be done to enact effective change,” Coulibaly said. “Before with the study circles centering around BLM, I had a lot to say that I wanted to say because to inform others on the best way to approach what was happening at the time. For this circle, I mostly just wanted to sit back and listen to what that community wanted to say.”

Student-participants found that the optional study circles were more productive than the ones in advisory because they were longer and the participants were more involved in the discussion. This allowed for students to have an honest conversation about difficult topics.

“I learned a lot about other peoples’ experiences with race and the differences in experiences between East Asian and South Asian students,” junior Shannon Hu, an Asian-American study circle participant, said. “It was definitely very informative and I really appreciated hearing opinions from people inside and outside of the community. I felt like it was easy to talk about issues without being judged and to have open discussions about difficult topics.”

At the end of the circles, students-participants brainstormed possible solutions. Everything from anti-racism education to requiring study circles to graduate were mentioned.

“More rigid anti-racism education in schools, especially for younger students, and general education about other cultures and racial experiences,” Hu said.

This circle was different than the RJSC’s first study circle — which took place last year and focused mostly on discrimination against Black and African-Americans. The RJSC removed “The Lie” — a video of Montgomery County, Md. elementary school students talking about racism — and “The Skin Color Survey” from this circle.

“Our current events activity was adapted for this Study Circle: we typically discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer’s racial justice protest,” Balina said. “The RJSC focused more on the Stop Asian Hate movement and localized incidents of racism and discrimination.”

Through her work with the RJSC, Balina was recently awarded the Princeton Prize in Race Relations — an honor given to high school students who work to advance racial justice and equality. The prize includes a $1,000 award and a trip to Princeton University’s Symposium on Race. She emphasized that although she won the award, there is still more work to be done.

“I’m proud and honored to say that I recently earned the Princeton Prize in Race Relations for my restorative and racial justice work on the school and county levels,” Balina said. “I hope this raises the profile of the RJSC and inspires others to take action regarding the issues they face. Anyone can contribute to a better, more equitable community.”

When the RJSC and the WCHS Ambassadors first held the circles, The Churchill Observer interviewed the leader of the WCHS Ambassadors, Marie Gasaway. Then, Gasaway stressed the importance of talking about race in a manner to stop and fix systemic racism.

“Sometimes we only talk about race in response to something that has happened,” Gasaway said in the November 2020 interview. “It is imperative to have these conversations on an on-going basis because racism and systemic racism isn’t going to be fixed in a day, year, or decade. It will take a lot of people, a lot of time to undo.”

By having these often-difficult conversations, students are working to end racism. Coulibaly decided to attend for this reason. She participated in the circles focusing on the treatment of Black and African-Americans last year, but decided to take a step back to hear more about Asian-American experiences.

“I learned a lot about the history of Asian hate, and how prominent and unknown it has been way before COVID,” Coulibaly said. “I also learned about stereotypes and common misconceptions that have been placed on the Asian community, as well as some feasible solutions that can be put in place to combat these stereotypes in a school setting.” 

It is something that Balina understands, too. She sees the RJSC as a key to creating a better community. Students interested in joining the coalition can email [email protected] or Balina directly at [email protected]

“I hope participants understand that we aim to create a space for our fellow community stakeholders to grow,” Balina said. “We wouldn’t be having these conversations if anyone, including the RJSC officers, were perfect. Everyone can say or do something racist or otherwise harmful. Our goal is to establish a restorative justice mindset in the Churchill community so that we can have uncomfortable conversations about race and culture and proactively address related issues and incidents.”