If plans to cool racial and ethnic tensions in Wake County schools are to succeed, people like Alfredo Pinon Monroy will have to be part of the change.
Monroy, a senior at Garner Magnet High School, is one of the organizers of Project Unity, an effort to connect people from different backgrounds and introduce them to larger-scale activism. Garner junior Israel Reyes and other participants acknowledge that the initiative is idealistic, given the entrenched nature of prejudice in society.
"Every big project starts somewhere," Reyes says. "Even big corporations had to start somewhere."
Monroy, Reyes, and other students got started Thursday with an event in the school's media center, drawing a diverse group of about seventy-five. They heard about plans to define their personal priorities, illustrate them in photographs, and post them on social media. In an effort that's already underway, they're using the communication tools of their generation to share their hopes with students across the state.
Within the day, Garner students' faces and statements started appearing on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #ncunitedforchange.
Student conversations are part of the plan proposed by Rodney Trice, assistant superintendent for equity affairs, in the aftermath of racially charged incidents at two Wake schools.
In early March, a video went viral of a black student who knocked down a white classmate at Wake Forest High School after what others described as prolonged racial taunting. Then another video emerged on social media of students at Leesville Road Middle School using bigoted language in reference to African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, and others. They chanted "KKK" as the clip ended.
At the March 20 Wake County Board of Education meeting, board members talked about far-reaching, adult-focused plans to make the system more welcoming for students from different racial and economic backgrounds and sexual orientations. But Trice also notes the constituency most affected by the hateful speech.
"It's important to also recognize that students very much need to be part of this conversation," Trice says. "They need to infuse these values where they are."
Project Unity at Garner traces its origins to a February demonstration at the school that descended into a shouting match, drew a crowd, then dissolved when the lunch bell rang. Monroy says the incident stemmed from disappointment among students who'd been inspired by a February 16 "Day Without Immigrants" protest.
"People started getting out of hand and started yelling, some yelling for Black Lives Matter, some for immigrants' rights," Monroy says. "I thought, 'I loved your idea, but how can we do something that promoted change in a positive manner?' This is how Project Unity has come about."
Activism goes beyond a senior-year activity for Monroy and fellow organizer Jalileh Garcia, a senior bound for Columbia University. Garcia wants to make human rights a career, perhaps working for a nongovernmental organization or the United Nations.
"This is all up my alley—being the voice for others, but also empowering them to use their own voices," she says.
Taking part in the Day Without Immigrants demonstration showed her people from different backgrounds raising their voices for the marginalized. The Garner students want to mirror the opportunities the march offered for people to convey how they feel about matters that affect their lives.
"Sometimes we don't know how to express ourselves," Garcia says.
Staying after the event with others to reposition the chairs that had filled with interested classmates, Monroy demonstrated that he'd studied the history of activism—both its triumphs and tragedies.
"Even if things aren't always going to be perfect, they're going to get better," he said. "We have gotten past some things and we are still alive."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Kids Are All Right."