WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange’s Human Relations Commission, Public Library Teen Advisory Group and the high school Unity Club came together at Town Hall on Oct. 25 for a panel discussing race, diversity and responsibility. The panel featured 11 high school students from WOHS, Seton Hall Prep and the Pingry School discussing social issues, led by HRC moderators Tammy Williams and Akil Khalfani.
“Just because you’re not an adult doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion,” Williams said at the panel, before questions ranging in topic from race, freedom of speech and gun control were asked to the panel.
Williams asked the teens if they thought people can be educated as to what they can and cannot say in terms of race, and if so, how? Sophia Ross, a WOHS student, said that issue raises questions about freedom of speech.
“I think it’s complicated to teach people, because it brings up freedom of speech,” she said at the event. “We can talk to people but they might say things we may not agree with. We make them aware of certain nuances and certain things that can cause a reaction. I think if we can teach them to be aware of these things, we’ll have a better outcome.”
Jax Appollon, another WOHS student on the panel, added his own thoughts about free speech to the conversation.
“People take that as they can say what they want whenever they want, without consequence,” he said. “What they don’t take into consideration is how other people feel about what they’re saying. They don’t realize that their words carry meaning.”
WOHS student Lilian Umetiti said many people get into an argument over an issue like race relations with the goal of changing another person’s mind, which shouldn’t always be the case.
“I think that a popular misconception concerning the whole idea of race relations is that every single conversation has to change someone’s mind,” Umetiti said. “I think it’s very possible that you can understand somebody without agreeing and I think our main goal as a society should be to push one another toward understanding.”
The August white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville, Va., were discussed at the event after Williams asked the panelists about the difference between a white power rally and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“White power rallies usually use intimidation to promote their white supremacist ideologies … whereas Black Lives Matter is a response to white supremacy,” WOHS student Marie Amoyan said. “One of their goals is to raise awareness about injustice in the minority community.”
WOHS senior Marc Younker agreed, saying, “Black Lives Matter is actually about promoting equal rights and civil rights and rights that are being denied, or unfair treatment when America is all about liberty and justice for all. It’s 2017 and that’s still not happening.”
“I think an important difference is that the Black Lives Matter movement is organizing protests and actually fighting for people’s rights,” Pepper Powell, another WOHS student, said. “Whereas the All Lives Matter movement, you know, if it was actually trying to help people make sure that all lives were recognized, it would include that. But there’s no effort associated with that, it’s only used as a counterpoint.”
WOHS student Kefiloe Mutume added her thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement to the conversation, saying the protests are often painted as violent, when they are actually peaceful.
“The very thing that Black Lives Matter is fighting against — to have that sense of humanity, to be viewed as human beings — is exactly what we’re fighting for,” she said. “And yet the way that we’re depicted in this fight (is the opposite).”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic