Adeola Tella-Williams has seen her students make new friends with people they typically don't see in their classrooms, and engage in dialogue about discrimination and segregation.
Students became engaged through anti-racism forums put on by Syosset-based ERASE Racism, said Tella-Williams, a teacher in the Uniondale school district for 20 years. For several years, she has taken a handful of freshmen and seniors to the annual forum, where they meet students from across Long Island. Last year's forum was held virtually over two days because of the coronavirus.
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ERASE Racism has seen participation in its anti-racism workshops soar since the 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Enrollment in the Syosset-based group's workshops ballooned from about 957 in 2020 to about 1,628 in 2021.
Erase Racism, a nonprofit that advocates racial equity, has conducted workshops for school districts, libraries, other nonprofit organizations and businesses.
"They learn about the inequities that exist, mainly in housing, and the history of Long Island," said Tella-Williams, who teaches global history and African American and Latinx history at Uniondale High School.
"Just as important," she added, "they made new friends of different races, and they’re able to dialogue with students from other parts of Long Island that they don’t get to see in their schools every day."
Participation in ERASE Racism's workshops has "ballooned" over the past year, said the nonprofit group's founder and president, Elaine Gross, who traced the increase in interest to protests over George Floyd's killing in May 2020.
Gross said 69 workshops and presentations were conducted for 29 clients in 2021, up from 47 workshops and 22 clients in 2020. The workshops cover a wide terrain, from dissecting the concept of race to discussions of government policy that once mandated housing developments segregated by race, until the federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 outlawing the practice.
Nicole Grennan, ERASE Racism's community educator/coordinator, said the total number of people enrolled in the workshops in 2021 was about 1,628, up from about 957 in 2020. Many of the workshops were for libraries, school districts and other nonprofit organizations and businesses.
"We have been overwhelmed with requests," Gross said. "I think the George Floyd protests were definitely an impetus. A lot of people were thinking about issues that they have not thought about before."
Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who was convicted and sentenced last year to 22 years in prison. Additionally, he pleaded guilty Dec. 15 to violating Floyd's constitutional rights.
Floyd's death prompted demonstrations across the country, including on Long Island, demanding social justice and police reforms.
Gross said ERASE workshops begin by delving into "people's understanding of what race is, beyond what they might have learned in their growing-up years," and then move on to segregation and "structural racism," for example.
As for the student participants, Tella-Williams said she has seen her "scholars" become "enlightened on why things are the way they are."
For example, her students, the majority of whom are Black and Latino, with many from immigrant families in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa, come out of the forums better able to understand the history and impact of discrimination. It's almost, she said, "therapeutic" for them to have this knowledge.
"It was really enlightening because there were like a lot of people there, there were other outside perspectives I might not have been able to see before," Amina Walker, 15, a 10th-grader at Uniondale High School, recalled about the anti-racism forum she attended last year. "I’m Black. I got to hear perspectives from Asian students, white students, Hispanic students that I might not have been able to get without asking and being there."
"I learned the history of housing on Long Island and how segregation was in the past, and how it is still reflected to this day," Walker added, noting how certain communities have mainly Black and other nonwhite residents, like her community in Uniondale and neighboring Hempstead, while other communities have majority white populations.
Walker said despite students' different perspectives, a "consensus" developed among them that "we definitely need to do better with how we deal with people of different races, sensitivity-wise."
Her father, Derek Walker, said he was proud of his daughter for participating in the forum. "It’s not easy growing up in these days and time," he said. "The fact that she’s thoughtful about some of the crises in the world is very important."
Sabely Chavez, 16, also a 10th-grader at Uniondale High, said she particularly liked the brainstorming session she and other students engaged in during the forum, listening to some highlight the discrimination they faced, and trying to come up with personal, and societal, solutions.
"I learned that you may not be the only person in this situation and you have others who have experienced it and you try to find a solution," Chavez said. "I also learned that Long Island has changed overall throughout the years. I remember them showing us a video about Levittown, and it was the most Caucasian town at that time, but now it has a lot of cultures."
Tella-Williams also has taken an ERASE Racism workshop her school district offered to staff for professional development.
"It really laid out how you can use the information that ERASE Racism gave to partner with your curriculum," she said.
Tella-Williams said she learned about "how a certain neighborhood's property value goes down based on the demographics of the people that live there. You can use this in economics class, in history class, even in a math class."