'Silence solves nothing’: Lenox Memorial junior nominated for Princeton Prize after co-organizing panel on race relations

Co-organizer nominated for Princeton Prize

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LENOX — Though their class has the task to learn about American history, national headlines related to the current Black Lives Matter campaign captivated Megan Porter's juniors at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

They have plenty of questions: What is the fundamental cause/tension of the Black Lives Matter movement? What are your reactions to what is happening? How are police trained to handle situations when they are confronted with an armed individual? How does Black Lives Matter relate to earlier social movements? How has media represented situations like this in the past?

To begin to find answers, the class this fall worked to organize a panel discussion at the school, inviting members of local law enforcement, activists and scholars to address the matter and field students' questions.

Now, one of the lead student organizers, junior Talia Traversa, has been nominated by her peers for The Princeton Prize in Race Relations, on behalf of her classmates' efforts to seek truth and understanding about such a current and complex social movement.

"I think we worked really hard in engaging our peers about the racial tensions in our country," Traversa said. "We knew that a lot of people were making comments and had different perceptions, but we wanted everyone to be educated on [what's going on]."

Each Friday, Porter spends about 20 minutes discussing current events with the juniors in her Honors American Studies class.

The idea for a panel came up during one of these sessions, after the Sept. 20, 2016 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C., at the hand of Brentley Vinson, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, both African American by race. The incident incited two days of riots within the city.

"A lot of us were disgusted with our nation's history and how African Americans were treated in the past, but a lot of us also felt liked we didn't get a chance to talk about what was going on now and that we were not as educated as we should have been," Traversa said.

Porter said her students really wanted to "dig into this" and learn more about the history of race and violence and social unrest. So a group of about 15 class members volunteered to meet up during their lunch period to work on putting together a group of panelists who could talk about different aspects of the issues at hand.

Slowly, a panel took form with a date of Jan. 18 set for an in school program. While some guests were eager to sign on to the project, the students also found that some people were not willing to talk about a topic that has made the nation uncomfortable. Fears and tensions and the idea that talks could lead to volatile debates led to the decision to keep the program as a closed, in school event versus a public forum.

"We knew there was national tension but we didn't think that it would get that close to home, so it was also a lesson in navigating these issues too," Traversa said.

Ultimately the students enlisted the following panelists for the discussion: Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn and Lt. Gary Traversa (Talia's father); Lenox Police Chief Stephen O'Brien and Officer Billy Colvin; sociology professor Stacy Evans, and assistant professor of English, Charles Park, both of Berkshire Community College; Shirley Edgerton, cultural proficiency coach for Pittsfield Public Schools; and Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County NAACP Branch. Lenox Superintendent Tim Lee was also in attendance.

"We had so many questions but we only got through about three because everyone had so much to say," Talia Traversa said of the panelists. "There was no one answer, but everyone was respectful, even if they disagreed."

Porter said that it was a great experience for students to see adults role modeling.

"It was really neat for them to see people with very different opinions have a conversation with each other and it was a relief to see it went well," Porter said.

The teacher said she was also proud of her class for putting in the time and effort to organize the panel, develop the format and questions and to host a luncheon with their guests.

"Moments like this panel is why I teach," said Porter. "Seeing [the students] engaged in asking really hard questions that challenge adults and make them think is powerful. ... I think it also teaches them that if you believe in something, you can make it happen."

Traversa said she hopes her classmates and peers continue to think and talk about these issues, be it in class, at home or among themselves. If she is named a Princeton Prize recipient, she will also have the chance to travel to this year's Princeton Prize Symposium on Race, scheduled for April 27–29 at the university. The symposium provides students "the opportunity to meet like-minded students from across the country and to engage in meaningful discussions about race and race relations," according to the program's website.

Traversa said "people try to ignore" issues relating to race that cause tension in society. She said that people need more safe, open and thoughtful opportunities to talk about the issues and learn potential ways to improve race relations.

"Silence solves nothing," she said. "I know we're not going to fix a national issue in an afternoon, but it's a good step."


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