In an age where Millennials are often described as uninterested, apathetic and selfish, a group of East Boston High School students are defying the so-called norm. Meet this week’s admirable #YoungPhenoms.
Reacting to the recent loss of a well-known athlete and graduate to gun violence, students started the first NAACP high school chapter in Massachusetts.
Shortly after the news broke of the loss, which took place within the first days of school, the focus on the tragedy began to fade almost as quickly as it had begun. New chapter founder and advisor Janelle Ridley, 29, recalled many of the students’ sentiments.
“They felt there was grief for a couple of days after it happened but then, where does it go?” she said. “Some of them even had the statement of, ‘So, when I die the school’s only going to think about me for a few days and then that’s it?’”
Ridley says she wanted to show the kids their lives do have value. With the help of co-advisor Jessica Saravia and the support of Principal Phil Brangiforte, she helped form the chapter.
“A lot of students don’t have someone to believe in them and believe that they’re capable of becoming more and to me that’s not accurate,” she said. “I think every student, no matter if you’re straight F’s or straight A’s, has the capabilities of becoming more. My goal in starting this is to let them know that someone cares.”
For the diverse group of students it was necessary, almost a no brainer, that something had to be done after the tragedy. Despite living in a culture that promotes violence, guns and loss of life because of them these teenagers refuse to join many Americans in their acceptance of such as normal.
In their short fifteen to eighteen years of life a majority have a wealth of experiences and losses due to gun violence. The courage and charisma dripped from their voices and tears often welled up and shed from their eyes when speaking about their own personal bouts with violence. They understand it’s not enough to be emotionally convicted though, as most often are, but that they must be moved to action in order to be the change they wish to see.
“When I think of the NAACP being here at our school, I think it brings forth such an amazing opportunity, not only of us coming from different backgrounds and different areas in Boston but us being together as a youth-empowered council to help strengthen the core of East Boston, our city, our community and also the nation,” said senior Jennifer Baptiste.
“I’ve witnessed one of my family members die in front of me when I was young,” said senior Michael Regalado. “It scarred me for life. It hurts inside but you don’t really know why gun violence happens. The reason I joined the NAACP is because there are little groups out there in the United States that make little change and that little change actually turns into something. I think if this little group actually does something in society, we can end up doing something in the world.”
The students said they hope to raise awareness and challenge their peers to care more about issues that impact them.
“We prepare ourselves to bring forth awareness into our community,” Baptiste said. “One thing we’re actually planning right now is a workshop at the local Boys and Girls Club where we’ll discuss gun law and the impact it has on Boston and the state, as well as key facts. Anyone can look at the news and debate or get angry over the things they see and the crimes that erupt but they need to understand where is all that coming from and why is this happening.”
Well-versed in the history of the NAACP, Ridley and Saravia said they are helping chapter members understand they stand on the shoulders of giants in joining the large organization. The EBHS chapter is meeting twice a week and becoming involved in the school community and local neighborhoods.
Students have already worked to commemorate November as National Violence Awareness Month and plan to do events with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute and Boston chapter of the NAACP, of which Ridley is a member. They have also started a scholarship named after the former student who passed away to ensure his legacy lives on.
They are spearheading and championing causes while managing at least a 2.0 grade point average required of them by Ridley to take part in the chapter, which is higher than the school’s 1.6 grade point average requirement for after-school involvement.
Even with hands full the passion and purpose as they work to create and host events, forums and other unique ways to start the dialogue and change within their school and neighborhood communities are undeniable. They’ve even made a scholarship named after the former student who passed away to ensure his legacy lives on.
There’s no limit to how far these energized and enthusiastic young people will go to wake their classmates and cohort up. Enough is enough and now is the time for action, they all agree.
“I’m hoping to actually make a difference. [The deceased student] was not the only friend I lost to gun violence so I feel like there needs to be a change. And if we have the opportunity to make a change I think we should totally go for it,” said senior Daniela Martinez.
Young people like these new NAACP members are unique in their efforts but not in their quest to get their peers a part of the conversation and action needed to make tangible changes in the world they will soon run. History’s greatest champions were often people in their youth so don’t believe the hype. Uninterested, apathetic and selfish? Think again.
For trusting me enough to share their story despite tears, tension and high emotions I would especially like to say thanks to these EASTIE kids. We laughed, shed tears and bonded in such a short period of time. I will never forget these young phenoms!