Anaya Cullum, left, and Chelsea Cohen, both of Great Neck, were...

Anaya Cullum, left, and Chelsea Cohen, both of Great Neck, were among those on hand Saturday. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The 10 teenagers sitting in a circle Saturday afternoon at Great Neck’s Firefighters Park didn’t at first glance seem like they were part of a protest movement.

But those behind the discussion there on mental health said it directly related to protests they had earlier organized after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

“If we only focused on police brutality, that’s the only place where we hopefully would end up seeing change,” said organizer Chelsea Cohen, 17, a rising senior at John L. Miller Great Neck North High School. 

With the public’s attention on police abuse of Black people, “we would miss our opportunity to discuss every other issue” related to systematic racism, she said, noting that at protests, issues like mass incarceration, gang violence and housing were brought up in speeches.

The racially mixed group discussed their own experiences, as well as how people of color who are also LGBTQ, or disabled, often face double challenges.

Elizabeth Sokolova, 16, a rising junior at William A. Shine Great Neck South High School, said many people face mental-health issues, but people of color have “that added weight of seeing and experiencing racism. That heightens things."

But schools where students of color predominate are often the ones with the greatest deficiency of mental-health professionals, she said.

Cohen, who is of Black Guyanese, Mexican and French ancestry, said she faced microaggressions for years in Great Neck schools, where she was one of the few students who were Black or Hispanic.

Students commented on how good her English was, even though it is her native language, and kids made fun of what she described as “poofy” hair. The psychological effect of those comments built up and spurred Cohen to straighten her hair, until only a few months ago.

One reason for the change was meeting Anaya Cullum, 17, who moved three years ago from Baldwin, where many of her classmates were Black like her, to Great Neck, where at Great Neck North, only 1% of students are Black.

Cullum was “shocked” when she saw so few other Black students and “didn’t talk for six months” at school. She's since become more comfortable.

Cohen said Cullum helped her embrace her Black identity, which she had hesitated to do because she never lived with her Black father.

The protests strengthened her identity even more. She had never felt comfortable talking about microaggressions with white friends, but at the protests she saw how white students were showing support for people of color and genuine interest hearing about her experiences.

At Saturday’s discussion, she thanked two white students for being there for her.

“Before June, the only person I thought I could talk to about these problems was Anaya,” she said.

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